Lesson 1 – Free Will


Survey Studies in Reformed Theology

Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©1996, 2006, 2010, 2017
Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 9


Free Will

The will of man is a complex problem

To understand it we need to consider all the biblical references to: man’s mind, soul, heart, desires, feelings, intentions, knowledge, decisions, and things like that. Then we have to combine all that with the Bible’s teachings about the effects of sin, the work of the Holy Spirit, the effects of regeneration, and the various callings of God. All that needs to be blended to form a model based upon clear information drawn from God’s word alone.

To complicate it even more, the person doing the study is also the subject of the study. We are fallen and finite creatures, far from neutral investigators. We are also influenced by the information we already know, our education system and a fallen culture.

There is even a further handicap. The words we use in stating our conclusions already have common meanings. In our present culture they often share a whole range of meanings. Almost every word in almost every language has a whole range of meanings. The term “free will” is used many different ways. It has historical, psychological, theological, and philosophical implications.

Defining the Will of Man is therefore a Challenge. Dr.Charles Hodge points out that there is a wide and a narrow sense of the term “will” as it relates to man. (“Systematic Theology” part 2, chapter 2, section 2)

In its wide sense, it involves all our desires, our affections, and even our emotions. These are the things we want, what wish we had, could do, or could become.

In its narrow sense, it involves the power of self-determination. It’s that part of us that decides on things and makes choices. That means the term “free will” might in the wide sense be truly free to decide what we most desire, while in the narrow sense it’s bound by our fallen condition.

Defining what we mean by “Freedom” is also a challenge In one sense we are free as we makes choices, while at the same time we are really not free. We are never compelled to make decisions that go against what we truly most desire. Yet our desires themselves are bound by what moral state we are in.

We say that man is a “free agent.” Dr. A. A. Hodge in his commentary on the Westminster Confession points out that there are three elements in being “free agents”.
1. We have a natural power to originate our actions.
2. We have the natural ability to choose what we most desire.
3. We have a natural ability to reason, and to believe that some things are true and others are false.

God also made us with a conscience to that knows some things are right and others are wrong.

Walter Chantry in his book, “Man’s Will – Free Yet Bound” mentions one of Anselm’s observations. Anselm critiqued those who say that true liberty is impossible if our options that are not real possibilities. Anslem pointed out that if we assume that this is true, then to be really free we must have the ability to sin. But that would mean that God can’t be free because he does not have the ability to sin. Freedom can not mean ability to select all imaginable options. That is totally inconsistent with the concept of liberty as it’s presented in Scripture.

The Westminster Confession speaks of “natural liberty.” It’s understood in different ways. In the broadest sense we have the ability to determine our choices independent of anything outside of ourselves. No God imposed limit keeps us from making a choice consistent with what we most desire. More narrowly the natural liberty of our will is limited in making choices. God’s eternal and all-inclusive decrees can never be modified by our choices. Because of our fallen conditon our desires are bound by the limits of our moral condition.

We humans are the true agents of our own actions. God is unambiguously revealed to be sovereign over all things. Psalm 135:6 tells us that whatever God pleases to do is always done. God’s desires and actions never depend upon the acts or choices of finite creatures. Therefore there can never be any uncertainty in God’s mind.

The choices and actions of creatures are real. We are the responsible agents of all we do. The Bible speaks of persons making choices and decisions. It says clearly that individuals actually sin, believe, repent, and fall away morally. The gospel calls us to turn to Christ as Redeemer, and to obey what our Creator has spoken in his word. The reality of our actions as “secondary causes” is part of the universe as God made it and reveals it.

These facts are not in conflict unless we incorporate them into a system of thought that is not drawn from Scripture, but that’s made up in the mind of us fallen creatures.

Freedom is not the ability to act in ways contrary to the decrees of God. Yet people can and often do choose to act in sinful ways, and believe untrue things.

Adam’s fall into sin left us depraved and unable to desire what’s good, or to understand spiritual truth. (Romans 3:10-12, 1 Corinthians 2:14) [see our syllabus: Objective Soteriology, “God’s Covenant With Man” the section about Original Sin.]

Putting all this together helps us assemble a biblical model of man’s moral nature. Our 5 senses send information to the brain (the organ through which the mind operates). The information is processed in the temporary memory, and stored in the long term memory. The mind retrieves stored and processed information as it interprets new input or reviews memories.

Our “will” is that part of the mind that processes information when we make choices. It formulates courses of action, and develops attitudes and convictions in our minds. Our conclusions are based upon the information available, our understanding of that information, and the moral inclinations of our heart.

The problem is complicated by some important limitations. The information we gather is limited and imperfect. The information we take in is immediately distorted by our fallen soul. We cannot rightly perceive God’s truth and glory as displayed in creation and in the acts of providence. The information retrieved from memory has to be selected from all that is stored there. We select what we remember on the basis of what we already think is relevant information. This might cause helpful information to be overlooked, or unrelated information to be incorporated due to our emotional attachments with an issue. Therefore the process of evaluating information for our choices is complex and bound to err.

The moral side of our choices is even more complex. Scripture indicates that there our human desires are in bondage. While we are free to choose what we desire, we are not free to desire what is contrary to our moral disposition.

The state of Man’s Moral Nature has not always been the same.

This chart is a theological model to compare our abilities and moral inclinations based upon Scripture.

Man’s State
historically
moral ability
to do good
moral ability
to do evil
inclined to
do good
inclined to
do evil
Created yes yes no no
Fallen no yes no yes
Redeemed yes yes yes no
Glorified yes no yes no

The Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes each of these moral states in chapter 9.

At creation, Man was in the State of Innocence.
Westminster Confession of Faith 9:1-2, “God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined to good, or evil. Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom, and power to will and to do that which was good and well pleasing to God; but yet, mutably, so that he might fall from it.”

As originally created Adam and Eve were not morally bound to good or to evil. They were able to do either. Since they were created as mutable beings, their moral state was not fixed.

God by decree connected Adam’s ability to do good with his obedience to the moral principles revealed in Eden. As long as he continued to obey, he lived in fellowship with God. He was able to both rightly perceive the moral dimention of things, and he was able to make choices without prejudice toward evil.

Man’s State
historically
moral ability
to do good
moral ability
to do evil
inclined to
do good
inclined to
do evil
Created yes yes no no

After the fall, we areall in the State of Bondage.
WCF 9:3, “Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.”

In Adam, all humanity lost its ability to do good, and became morally bound to evil. The ability to choose what we desire remained. In that sense our fallen will remains “free” or unbounded. But, we lost our desire to do good or to rightly understand how the good relates to the glory of the true God. In this sense the human “will” became bound. In the fallen estate we are not able to do good because we are morally opposed to it, and we will not desire it in a God-honoring sense.

Fallen humans are never forced to sin. We are not helpless victims of divine or external forces of any sort. Our wickedness comes from within. We sins most willingly.

Man’s State
historically
moral ability
to do good
moral ability
to do evil
inclined to
do good
inclined to
do evil
Fallen no yes no yes

When redeemed, a person is in a State of Grace.
WCF 9:4, “When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, he freeth him from his natural bondage under sin; and, by his grace alone, enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet so, as that by reason of his remaining corruption, he doth not perfectly, nor only, will that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil.”

In regeneration God makes the sinner alive again spiritually (Ephesians 2:1-5). The new life he has in Christ compels him to desire to come to the Savior for forgiveness and to strive to live obediently out of thankfulness for God’s grace.

No one is ever forced into faith against his will. He freely desires to come to Christ when God changes the moral inclinations of his nature. The will remains free in that he does what he desires. No one can change his moral inclinations on his own. He can’t desire to change desires. That is a self contradiction.

Regeneration changes the moral desires into bondage to righteousness (Romans 6:18). The redeemed are not set free from the remaining habits of sin and temptation. They are still able to do evil though it is inconsistent with what God reveals to be right and true.

Man’s State
historically
moral ability
to do good
moral ability
to do evil
inclined to
do good
inclined to
do evil
Redeemed yes yes yes no

After the redeemed die they are in the State of Glory.
WCF 9:5, “The will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to good alone, in the state of glory only.”

In the state of glory after this life the redeemed are set free from the remaining effects of sin. We will be no longer able to choose to do evil. We will desire what’s good, and will have a restore perception of the moral dimentions of choices as they relate to the holiness of God.

In this state we always chooses to do what is right and good because our desires will have been fully sanctified. We continues to have a free will in that we do what we desire to do. We will then be able to do what pleases God consistently, and will finally be unable to sin.

1 John 3:2 “now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet that we shall be. We know that, if He should appear, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is.”

Man’s State
historically
moral ability
to do good
moral ability
to do evil
inclined to
do good
inclined to
do evil
Glorified yes no yes no

In the State of Bondage we are deceived by our own fallen souls.

The fallen nature denies it has a moral disposition that controls the decision process. It assumes that it is morally neutral, that it has sufficient information, and that it understands things perfectly.

To the Secular Naturalist man is just a psycho-chemical machine. He see humans as advanced from the lower animals, but not morally different than them. To him choices spring from our genetic potential developed by our experiences and environment. He sees decisions as determined by what he has become. His choices determine what he is yet to become.

Humanistic religion subjects God’s plans to the choices of man. Man instead of God is viewed as sovereign ruler over his own choices.

Fatalistic religion is spiritual determinism. It eliminates the reality of man’s own actions. Men are just objects in the hands of the divine. If a god is in us acting and producing our choices by external coercion, we have Pantheism. If God is the one doing the sinful acts through us, then he is the author of every sin. Evil loses its wickedness. Since this view treats others with this detachment it tends to be inhumane with little regard for human life. People are seen as mere tools to their god. Compassion is lost. Responsibility is denied.

Reformed Christianity rejects that man is morally neutral and undetermined by the decrees of God. We are free to choose what we desire, but our desires are governed by our moral nature and the decrees of God. No one can change his own nature. No one is able to resist what has been decreed from eternity past. Only God can change a fallen heart and incline it toward good. In regeneration God changes our moral nature to enable the person to act in a manner truly honoring to his Creator.

One text that clearly illustrates this view is John 6. There Jesus explained our moral inability to come in true faith to the message of the gospel. Coming in faith can only take place by regeneration based upon God’s eternal decree of election. Note the following verses in particular:

John 6:37, “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.”

John 6:44-47, “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught of God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me. Not that any man has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life.”

If God by grace enables a particular person to come to him, that person most certainly will come, and will be received by the Savior, and be raised up in the Resurrection. This coming is based upon the eternal decree of election (Ephesians 1:4, Romans 8:29-30). We only know who are called by God when they actually come to Him.

This idea is dramatically opposed by the disposition of our fallen hearts. It even caused some followers to defect from Jesus as he taught these things while here on earth.

John 6:60-66, “Many therefore of His disciples, when they heard this said, ‘This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?’ But Jesus, conscious that His disciples grumbled at this, said to them, ‘Does this cause you to stumble? What then if you should behold the Son of Man ascending where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him. And He was saying, ‘For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father.’ As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew, and were not walking with Him anymore.”

A typical argument against what these verses plainly say suggests that God draws everyone to come to Christ. They assume that this “drawing” includes all of humanity without exception. They cite the idea of “free will” as if it means that we are free to act regardless of any decrees of God. They assume that our decision alone is what ultimately determines if we will respond to that drawing.

They usually refer to John 12:31-33 where Jesus said, ” ‘Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world shall be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.’ But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die.”

The problem with using this text is that the issue being addressed is totally different. In John 12 God draws all men to himself for judgment. The victory over the “ruler of his world” (Satan) was about to be secured in the death of Jesus (12:31). As we are drawn to the crucified Savior we are judged either as those defeated with Satan, or as those redeemed by the Savior’s death in our place.

If all men are drawn savingly to Christ, then God failed. Not all come to him trusting in the Savior’s work. In John 6:37 and 6:44 Jesus said that all who are drawn in that sense do actually come to him. In John 6 he is talking about coming in repentance and faith. In John 12 he is talking about all being drawn to him for judgment, either to glory or to condemnation. This tension can’t be removed by the humanistic assumption that man’s neutral choice is the final arbiter. The John 6 text says that they are only able to come by God’s gracious and infallible enablement.

God did not fail in the work Jesus Christ came to do. He gloriously succeeded and secured the full redemption of those he determined to save from before the foundation of the world.

(Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.)

return to the WCF IV index

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