Lesson 1 – Free Will

Survey Studies in Reformed Theology

Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
Bob Burridge ©1996, 2006, 2010

Note: The Bible quotations in this syllabus are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.

Subjective Soteriology: Lesson 1 – Free Will
by Pastor Bob Burridge ©2998, 2010

Lesson Index
The Will of Man is a Complex Problem
The Will of Man Defined
The Concept of Freedom
The History of Man’s Moral Nature

Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 9

I. 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.
II. 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.
III. 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.
IV. 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.
V. The will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to good alone, in the state of glory only.

The will of man is a complex problem

One problem that faces us in a discussion of the freedom of the will of man is the complexity of the issue. It is not just a matter of exegeting a few well identified passages of Scripture. It demands that we take the many references to man’s mind, intentions, understanding, emotions, decisions, reasoning, soul, and heart, then combine them with the Bible’s teachings about the effects of sin, the work of the Holy Spirit, the effects of regeneration, and the callings of God. In this matter our understanding of all of Scripture on these issues must be blended to form a model based only upon the sound data God has given.

Complicating the issue even more is that the one doing the study is also the subject of the study. Fallen man bound within his creaturely finiteness is far from a neutral investigator. His own depravity and incomplete sanctification will influence him in ways he may not easily identify. He is also influenced in his thinking by the surrounding attitudes of an information and education system dominated by humanism.

A further handicap in this study is that the words we use in formulating our views already have common understandings in our present culture and often share a whole range of meanings. Often a discussion of man’s will may use terms in several different ways confusing both the speaker and the listener. Our modern use of the word “freedom” is likewise heavily laden with historic and philosophic implications.

The Will of Man Defined

Charles Hodge specifies both a wide and a narrow sense of the term “will” as it relates to man (Systematic Theology, part 2, chapter 2, section 2). In the wide sense, the “will” includes “all the desires, affections, and even emotions.” In this sense it involves all the faculties of the soul that are not comprehended under man’s mere store of knowledge. In the narrow sense it is used of the power of self-determination, of that “faculty by which we decide on our acts.” In this last sense “only purposes and imperative volitions are acts of the will.”

Given these varying uses of the term we may affirm certain things about the will in the one sense, while denying them in the other sense. If careful distinction is not made great confusion emerges.

The Concept of Freedom

There is one sense in which man is free as he makes choices, and another sense in which he is not free. No one is compelled to decide contrary to what he truly desires to do once all known information is considered and weighed. Yet man’s desires themselves are bound by the moral state of the person in question.

We say that man is a “free agent.” A. A. Hodge explains in his commentary on the confession that this expression includes three elements.

  1. That he has the power of originating action
  2. That he always wills that which … he desires to will
  3. That he is furnished with reason to distinguish between the true and the false, and with conscience to distinguish between the right and the wrong.

Walter Chantry (in “Man’s Will – Free Yet Bound”) alluded to Anselm’s observation when he wrote in critique of those who say that true liberty is impossible if the person is not able to have options that are real possibilities. Anslem reasoned, “if ability to sin is necessary to true liberty or responsibility, then God is neither free nor praiseworthy.”

The presumption that freedom must include full ability to select all the imaginable options is not consistent with the concept of liberty as presented in Scripture. This matter will become clearer after a discussion of the states of man along with a look at the various attempts to understand the will of man and how his freedom relates to the certainty of the decrees of God.

The confession speaks of a “natural liberty.” This term is understood in various ways. On the one hand the term “natural” could be taken in the broadest sense as relating to the ability of man as a whole living being to determine his own future independent of anything outside of himself. However, God’s word indicates that the eternal and perfect decrees of God are not able to be modified by the choices of man rendering this sense of the term “natural liberty” to be without support in that broader sense. Or the term can be taken more narrowly relating only to the natural liberty of the will in making its choices. This means that there is no God created limit that would keep man from making a particular choice consistent with his desires to the extent that he is able to do what he chooses. His desires are bound within the limits of his moral disposition.

Humans are true agents of their actions

Our view of man’s ability to make choices freely must not conflict with facts clearly given to us in Scripture. God is unambiguously revealed to be sovereign over all things. Whatever he pleases to do is always done (Psalm 135:6). Nothing is left uncertain in the mind of God or in his decrees. Nothing is contingent upon the acts or choices of finite creatures including man.

It is also clear from Scripture that the choices and actions of creatures are real. Humans are the responsible agents of all the things they do. The Bible speaks of persons making choices and decisions. They are said to sin, believe, repent, and fall away morally. The gospel calls for men to turn to Christ as their Redeemer. We are all commanded to obey what our Creator has spoken in his law. The reality of secondary causes is part of the universe as God made it and reveals it.

There is no conflict with these facts unless we incorporate them into a system of thought that is not drawn from Scripture, but that emerges from the fallen creativity of the mind of the mere creature. [See syllabus: Theology Proper, lesson four, The Decrees of God.]

Our view of the human will must not incorporate the freedom to act in ways contrary to the decrees of God. Yet it must include the fact that men do choose to act in sinful ways, and to believe things that are not true.

A sound biblical model must also consider that man’s fall into sin has left him depraved and unable to desire that which is truly good, or to rightly understand spiritual truth (Romans 3:10-12, 1 Corinthians 2:14). [see syllabus: Objective Soteriology, lesson two2, Original Sin.]

A proposed model of man’s moral nature
Man receives information from God’s creation through the senses given him by the Creator. The information is transformed neurally into a form that can be processed by the person’s mind. Information can be stored for later retrieval or held in temporary memory as it is being processed. Man is also influenced by the signals his own body gives to him about its own physical condition.

What we commonly call the will is that part of the mind of man which processes information to formulate courses of action, or states and convictions of mind. Man’s conclusions are based upon the information available, the accuracy with which that information is processed, and the moral inclinations of the person.

The information a person has available to him is limited and imperfect. The data coming to him through his senses is immediately distorted by the inability of his fallen soul to rightly perceive God’s truth and glory as displayed in creation and in God’s acts of providence. The data retrieved from memory must be selected from all that has been stored. It will be selected on the basis of the pre-judged relevance of the information. This may cause helpful information to be overlooked, or unrelated information to be incorporated due to emotional attachments with an issue. Therefore the process of evaluating data as a basis for our choices is complex and bound to err.

The moral aspect of our choices is even more complex. Scripture indicates that there is a bondage upon the desires of man. While he is free to choose what he desires, he is not free to desire what is contrary to his moral disposition.

The History of Man’s Moral Nature

The chart below is a theological model. It attempts to compare the abilities and moral inclinations of man based upon the information we have available in Scripture.

Man’s State
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 chapter 9 summarizes each of these moral states of man as follows …

Man in the State of Innocency

II. 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.

Man, as God originally created him, was not morally bound to good or to evil. He was able to do either. Since he was created as a mutable being his moral state was not fixed. God by decree connected man’s ability to do good with his obedience to the moral principles revealed to him in Eden. As long as he continued to obey, man lived in fellowship with God and was able to both rightly perceive the moral aspects of the data available to him, and was able to make choices without prejudice toward evil.

Man in the State of Bondage

III. 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.

Fallen man lost his ability to do good when he became morally bound to evil. His ability to choose what he desires remained. In that sense his will remains “free” or unbounded. But he lost the desire to do good or to rightly understand how the good relates to the glory of the true God. In this sense his “will” became bound. He is not able to do good because he is morally opposed to it and cannot desire it in its God-honoring sense.

Fallen man is never forced to sin. He is not a helpless victim of divine or external forces of any sort. His wickedness comes from within. He sins most willingly.

Man in the State of Grace

IV. 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.

By his work of 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 man is ever forced into faith against his will. He freely desires to come to Christ when God changes the moral inclinations of his nature. In all this the person’s will remains free in that he does what he desires. But he is never able to change his moral inclinations which determine his desires. For man to desire to change his desires is a self contradiction.

Though the moral desires of the regenerate man bring him into bondage to righteousness (Romans 6:18), he is not set free during this earthly life from the remaining habits of sin and the temptations of his yet unglorified condition. He is still able to do evil even though it is inconsistent with what God reveals to be right and true. We will consider this more fully under the heading of “sanctification” in the 13th chapter of the Westminster Confession.

Man in the State of Glory

V. The will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to good alone, in the state of glory only.

When the believer is raised to the state of glory after this life is over he is set free from his struggle with the remaining effects of sin. He will no longer be able to choose to do the evil because his desire for good and his ability to rightly perceive the moral aspect of his choices as they relate to the holiness of God will have been perfected. In this state he always chooses to do what is right and good because his desires will have been fully sanctified. He continues to have a free will in that he does what he desires to do. In glory he is able consistently to do what pleases God and he will 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 Moral Ability in the State of Bondage
Due to his fallen nature man denies that he has a moral disposition which has controlling influence upon his decision process. The unbeliever considers himself to be morally neutral, and able to base his choices upon only the information that comes to him by his senses which he presumes he is able to understand sufficiently.

To the naturalist, man is little more than a psycho-chemical machine operating on a level advanced from the animals but not qualitatively different from them. Human choices are seen as springing from his genetic potential developed by personal experiences and environment. Decisions are said to be determined by what a person has become. These choices then determine what he is yet to become.

The influence of humanism upon modern religion has produced views that while claiming to be both biblical and Christian actually subject God’s plans to the choices of man. Man instead of God is viewed as sovereign ruler over his future through the power of his own choices.

The determinism of fatalistic religion eliminates the reality of man’s own actions. Men are treated as if they were mere objects in the hands of the divine. If a god is in us acting and producing our choices by external coercion then we have fallen into the danger of pantheism. We become mere extensions of God. If God is the one doing the sinful acts through us, then he is the author of sin. Evil loses its wickedness. Since this view treats others with this detachment, it tends to be inhumane and has a little regard for human life itself. People are seen as mere objects to God. Compassion is lost. Responsibility is denied.

The Reformed position rejects the idea that man is both morally neutral and undetermined by the decrees of God. Though we are free to choose what we desire, our desires are governed by our moral nature and the decrees of God. No one is able to 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 and enables 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 the nature of man regarding his moral inability to come in true faith to the message of the gospel. He taught that this coming in faith can only take place by the supernatural work of regeneration which is based upon the eternal decree of election. Note the following texts in particular …

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

40 “For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life; and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.”

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 works by grace to enable a particular heart to come to him, then that person most certainly will come and will be received with the assurance of the Savior. This coming is based upon the eternal decree of election (Ephesians 1:4, Romans 8:29-30). We only know who those are 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 defections from Jesus as he taught these things while here on earth.

John6:60-66 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 reply to this chapter of Scripture is to suggest that God draws each individual human to come to Christ as Savior. They presume that this “drawing” includes all of humanity without exception. To explain why every person does not come to Christ when drawn, they cite the idea of “free will” as if it means that which is free from the decrees of God. They conclude that it must be a decision of man alone that ultimately determines if he will respond to that drawing and come to Christ. To support this theological idea reference is often made 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 is not said to draw all men to Jesus for salvation. It says that he 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 on the cross. 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 this text meant that all men are drawn savingly to Christ, then God failed because not all men come to him. Jesus said that all who are drawn do actually come to him (compare John 6:37 and 6:44). This tension cannot be removed by merely introducing the humanistic assumption that man’s neutral choice is left to be the final arbiter. The John 6 text says that they are only able to come by God’s gracious and infallible enablement.

The John 12 text does not mean that all men are drawn savingly to Christ. God did not fail in the work Jesus Christ came to do. He gloriously succeeded and has secured the full redemption of those he determined to save from before the foundation of the world.

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