The philosopher Albert Camus once said, “Life is the sum of all your choices.” On the surface it seems reasonable, and if you ask the average person on the street — or in the next pew at church — whether or not they agree, many may ponder for a moment before nodding yes, perhaps hedging their commitment slightly to something like: “Sure, I’ll go along with that.”
One of the great discussions regarding human nature is the question of free will — the sum of the choices that we, by ourselves, make each day. It’s a conversation fraught with emotions, misunderstandings, and entangled with personal identity. Reformed Christians, especially, may find the question of free will vexing. Unlike those in other traditions — whose views on free will are simpler if less defensible from all but the most cursory proof-texting — Christians who hold a high view of God’s sovereignty sense that the topic isn’t easy.
What is “free will”? Reformer John Calvin (paraphrasing early Christian theologian Origen) wrote that free will is “a faculty of the reason to distinguish between good and evil, [and] a faculty of the will to choose one or the other.” This is a helpful starting point, and from here it’s possible to explore what Scripture says about the freedom of human will — and the lack thereof — with a good foundation underfoot.
One common misconception about the nature of humanity generally — and regarding the freedom of the will specifically — is that people are born into a morally neutral state. At the same time, we like to believe that we are all children of God, meaning that at birth God loves us all and that we are His. If, later, some have strayed from God’s embrace or abandoned His commands, it is due to their free will. Likewise, many people (including some Christians) think of themselves as being basically and fundamentally good. Following Calvin’s definition, these assumptions hold that the faculties of reason and will are intact, operative, and reliable — until they are tainted or misdirected.
But is this true? In Ephesians 2, Paul stated unambiguously that it isn’t: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:1–3, emphasis added). This is why Scottish theologian Sinclair Ferguson has concluded, “Evil deeds are the fruit of an evil heart. They are not an aberration from our true self but a revelation of it.”
Therefore, rather than being born as children of God, all of humankind are born children of wrath. People aren’t basically good; they are, at base, inclined to evil. Indeed, as Romans 6 says, humanity is born into slavery to sin, impurity, and lawlessness: “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” (Romans 6:16–19).
With regard to free will, then, it becomes clearer that the faculties Calvin laid out are broken, because of the sinful nature of humanity. Rather than having a faculty of reason to distinguish good from evil, children of wrath often mistake evil for good. Instead of displaying a faculty to choose good over evil, slaves to sin are regularly inclined to choose evil over good. The will is not free, insofar as freedom would mean that each choice is completely neutral. Instead, as The Westminster Confession of Faith says, “Man, by his fall into a state of sin, has 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” (WCF IX.III). Or, as Martin Luther notes in his book “The Bondage of the Will,” “The truth of the matter is rather as Christ says, ‘He who is not with me is against me.’ … He does not say ‘He who is not with me is not against me either, but merely neutral.’”
When people believe that they are morally free in their will, it is proof only that they are enslaved. As British evangelist and blogger Glen Scrivener commented, “To say ‘I am who I am / I will be who I will be’ is both idolatrous and, ironically, makes us slaves of our own desires. Such ‘freedom’ enthrones the self and simultaneously locks the self off from the claims of others in whom I find my true self. Satan rules us precisely where we seek to rule ourselves.”
Free or Determined?
Reformed Christians quickly acknowledge these truths with respect to salvation; the Christian is predestined, because of the irresistible grace of God and the particular grace that accompanies it. It couldn’t be otherwise. Were we able to choose whether to believe or not to believe, then it is possible that Christ could have died in vain — that no one would choose to believe. Nothing about man’s sinful nature suggests that we would choose to believe. It’s far more certain that mankind would always choose unbelief. In terms of salvation and belief in Christ, there is a sense of a determined path within the core doctrines of the church.
Yet when it comes to matters other than salvation, even many Reformed Christians are hesitant to ascribe any sort of determined nature to the choices of a man. God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility seem at odds with one another. Instead, the concept of “indeterminism” — that the will of humanity is not actually under influence apart from our free choices — is enticing, not least because it implies that the mysteries of these competing truths can be discarded in favor of a tidy and comprehensible answer.
But can they? Trinity Evangelical Divinity School professor John Feinberg observes, “If indeterminism is correct, I do not see how God can be said to foreknow the future. If God actually knows what will (not might) occur in the future, the future must be set and some sense of determinism applies. God’s foreknowledge is not the cause of the future, but it guarantees that what God knows must occur, regardless of how it is brought about.”
Instead, Scripture shows the mystery of both God’s determining sovereignty — perfectly just and righteous, and not inclining any toward sin — and the inclination of fallen and unredeemed humankind to sin. Like all mysteries, we cannot grasp this paradox or explain it away with a simple answer. To do so, as Bethlehem College & Seminary assistant professor Andrew Naselli recognized, would be like trying to describe the whole of a puzzle for which we do not have all the pieces!
Will and Responsibility
This could easily become an excuse for sin. If humankind is inherently beholden to our sinful nature, how could anyone be held responsible for his or her sin? Furthermore, if God in His sovereignty is the guide and counsel to all of history, could anyone other than God be held responsible?
This is the very nature of a paradox. Indeed, Scripture is replete with examples of exactly this sort of compatibility. Judas Iscariot, for example, was predestined in God’s redemptive plan to betray Christ. Yet Judas was also held responsible for his betrayal. Proverbs 16:9 shows the dual presence of both man’s will and God’s will: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” And Peter, describing Christ’s crucifixion, exposed both the sin of the Jews and the hand of God behind their actions: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). These are only a few of the examples that the Bible holds forth.
Humanity is both: determined under the watchful sovereignty of God, and at the same time free in such a way that the responsibility for sin falls upon the sinner.
It is our inclination toward sin that leads to our accountability for it. Theologian John Frame observes, “How can we be held responsible for decisions, if those decisions are … unconnected with any of our desires? Indeed, such a situation would, precisely, negate all responsibility.” In other words, the desire of a person’s heart — and the righteousness or wickedness that ensues — is at the very root of what makes them responsible for their sin. If there weren’t some inclination behind every choice, then each decision would be truly random.
Humanity is both: determined under the watchful sovereignty of God, and at the same time free in such a way that the responsibility for sin falls upon the sinner. But the “freedom” possessed by a person is hindered by his or her fallen state and sinful nature. Barring a supernatural act of God apart from ourselves, we are and will remain slaves to sin.
Everyone Serves Someone
Bob Dylan is often quoted in sermons and elsewhere, demonstrating what the Scripture quotes above tell us: “You Gotta Serve Somebody.”
“You may be an ambassador to England or France / You may like to gamble, you might like to dance / You may be the heavyweight champion of the world / You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed / You’re gonna have to serve somebody / Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
Everyone serves something or someone. Children of wrath, born as slaves to sin, serve the sinful nature of the flesh. They serve their sin, and themselves. At best this manifests in self-preservation and self-interest. At worst, it fleshes out in indecency, transgression, and licentiousness. This is not to say that everything that a child of wrath does is entirely and only sinful. As R.C. Sproul has pointed out, the doctrine of “total depravity” is not a doctrine of “utter depravity.” But it does mean that every action, thought, decision, or intention is colored by sin and infected by it.
As a clearer sense emerges of what it means to have free will — and to be responsible for it— we might be discouraged. Yet, there is great hope in the face of this difficult doctrine.
For even as humanity is born enslaved to sin and beholden to the flesh, Christ has freed us. Romans 8 encourages us this way: “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. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you” (Romans 8:7–9, emphasis added).
In salvation the nature of a man is fundamentally changed; where he once lived “in the flesh,” in Christ he is in the Spirit. Before conversion, the sinful will of man wrought nothing but God’s displeasure; in Christ and in the Spirit, however, he can will to please God. So, lest the fear of our fallen nature overcome us, Paul goes on: “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:15–17).
In other words, as The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches, “When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, He frees 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 does not perfectly, or only, will that which is good, but does also will that which is evil” (WCF IX.IV).
Everyone has to serve somebody. For the Christian, that service shifts from the devil and the self to the service of Christ our king, and the sovereign Lord whom we are invited to call “Father.” His designs for His children are perfect and altogether righteous, and service unto them will always end in righteousness. Again Glen Scrivener helps us when he points out: “The Christian does not believe in free will. Not in the abstract and certainly not by nature. We believe in freed will. We are not free to choose or not to choose Christ. We are liberated by Christ now to be free in Him.” And so we are: free to serve Christ, and to act as the children of the King ought to act.
Does this mean that Christians, wills freed from bondage to sin and given to Christ, will serve him perfectly and without sin? No; again, The Westminster Confession gives insight: “The will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to do good alone in the state of glory only” (WCF IX.V). But for a believer, every day, and every thought and action, are shaped by the anticipation of — and the preparation for and participation in — the full consummation of that coming state of glory.
J.E. Eubanks, Jr. is a pastor and writer in west Tennessee; find more of his writing at www.edeubanks.com.