Does man have free will?
I’m sure we have all had someone ask the question in Sunday school, at a bible study or even mulled it over ourselves in the dark of night at one time or another. Honestly, this has been a hot topic in my slice of the hemisphere the last few weeks. It’s the million dollar question. The way we answer it shall determine much of our doctrine. It will also shape our conception of God, his character, his wisdom and his power. It will also determine how much room man has for boasting when it comes to his salvation, his sanctification and his perseverance. It is an important issue to resolve in our hearts by the scriptures, so I first would like to define the boundaries of what the term free will actually implies and what the bible says about how free our will truly is. Let’s dig in!
The heart of the question is this: Can man freely choose between good and evil, God or the devil, the flesh or the spirit, Heaven or the world as if he is choosing between a vanilla or chocolate ice cream cone?
Let me take it a little further. Does man’s will remain neutral when it comes to good and evil in the world? Does his heart have any inclination, propensity or preference to either side? If so, which side?
Let’s allow the scriptures to speak to us. Here is a just a sampling of a myriad of revealing verses on the natural disposition of our hearts:
The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Gen 6:5)
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? (Jer 17:9)
And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
These verses prove man has an evil heart by nature. What are the everyday practical consequences of having a wicked heart?
as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Rom 3:10-18)
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1Co 2:14)
For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. (Rom 8:7)
These verses plainly exhibit that man turns away from God and desires to do evil. He is in bondage to his sinful nature. In light of this sober truth, how free is man to choose to do good?
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. (Joh 8:34)
Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil. (Jer 13:23)
I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (Joh 15:5)
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. (Joh 6:44)
We cannot say with any biblical authority that man’s will is free. It is enslaved to serve our natural evil inclinations. I say natural in the sense of corrupted human nature since Adam’s fall, not in the sense that God created man in this condition.
Here is where a distinction in theological terms must be defined. First, let me just say with absolute certainty that God has indeed imbued man with the capacity to choose. Yes, you read me correctly. Man has absolute freedom of choice. Many times every single day we make choices. We are responsible for those choices and must pay the consequences for every decision. We pay in a temporal sense by reaping what we sow. We will pay in an eternal sense by giving an account of ourselves before God himself on the day of Judgment. Free choice – it is an awesome privilege and responsibility.
You may be thinking right now, ‘What a strange, contradictory statement for a Calvinist to make!’ Not at all. No Calvinist worth his salt would deny man’s freedom to choose. We have no beef with this doctrine. Our contention is with the notion that man has a free will.
How does free will differ from free choice?
Free choice simply means we make choices unconstrained and uncoerced by external forces or influences. We’ve all heard the saying, ‘the devil made me do it!’ If the devil truly made us do it then man truly has no choice at all in this life. That is coercion. In truth, the devil doesn’t make us do anything that we aren’t willing to do ourselves. Ultimately, free choice is the act of the will to choose according to its greatest desire at any given moment.
Free will, within the context of the biblical worldview, is the freedom to serve and love God unhindered by sin. See, our choices in life are influenced by our desires. Our desires are influenced by our preferences. Our preferences by our character and personality. Our personality is shaped by our nature. Man has inherited Adam’s fallen nature that desires sin and its deceitful pleasures. As the scriptures above prove, whoever sins is a slave to sin. If we are by nature sinners we will proceed to sin. If we sin we become a slave to its pleasures and passions. A slave is not free to love God in any sense of the word. A slave always does his master’s bidding.
You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. (Joh 8:44-45)
A man in his natural corrupted state does the will of of his Father the devil, who is only interested in his own agenda. Consequently, we are only interested in those things that are pleasing to our flesh, which run contrary to Christ’s call to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. A man bound by such a nature cannot choose God because he hates His ways of holiness and righteousness and by extension, God himself.
In the end analysis of this brief discourse, man is free to choose whatever he desires. However, his desires are governed by a heart corrupted by the power of sin. It holds sway over every man until the Son of God sets him free. Only then will he be free indeed to serve God with a pure heart and a clear conscience.
for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phi 2:13)