Chapter 9: Of Free Will

FreeWill

  1. God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty and power of acting upon choice, that it is neither forced, nor by any necessity of nature determined to do good or evil. (Matthew 17:12; James 1:14; Deuteronomy 30:19 )

Chapter 9 will address the nature of the will of man, and how man’s state of innocency, sin, grace, and glory affect the will of man.  It does not address man’s free will in relation to God’s decree; that was touched on within chapter 3 and 5.  You may notice that “God” is the first word of this chapter, and that is for good reason.  Any sound doctrine about mankind’s will must start with God.  Since God is sovereign and mankind’s Creator where else would one start?  To seek to understand the nature of man’s will by starting with man himself—as some do—is like looking through a pair of binoculars the wrong way; our view of God ends up very small, and thus our view of man too large.

The Confession explains that God hath endued the will of man.  Endued is not a word often used today, but it means “to give a quality or characteristic.”  A modern synonym is “endow.”[1]  What quality or property did God endow man’s will with?  God endowed the will of man with that natural liberty and power of acting upon choice.  Sproul states: “Here the confession speaks of natural liberty, a liberty that is part and parcel of our nature as human beings.”[2]  Man’s will is also endued with natural… power.  The word “natural” also applies to the word “power,” and so should read: “natural liberty and [natural] power.” The will of man has the natural power or ability to act upon choice; that power is “part and parcel” of what it means to be a human being. Thus, God made man with free agency, that is, the natural liberty and power of the will to make choices.  Reformed theology does not deny man’s free agency; it thoroughly embraces it.  Man’s free agency is not a defeater of God’s sovereign decree, but is compatible with it.  God often uses man’s free agency to bring about his decree (see 5:2 the nature of second causes, particularly “freely”), and yet without coercing man’s will.

The will of man, so endowed with natural liberty and power to choose, is neither forced… to do good or evil.  The will of man is not “forced” (i.e. coerced) to choose good or evil.  If the will was forced, it would not be at liberty or have power to act upon choice.  Adam and Eve were not forced to obey or disobey God’s special command in the garden.  Rather, Adam and Eve freely chose to disobey.  The disobedience was their choice, and they chose based on their desire: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (Gen. 3:6 ESV).  There is no hint in the text that the will was forced; rather, we see the natural liberty and power of the will freely acting upon that choice they desired.  Man chooses good or evil according to that which he desires.  Scripture says: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire (James 1:14 ESV; see also Gen. 3:6; Matt. 17:12; James 1:14).  No one can say, “The devil made me do it.”  The devil may tempt, and sinful desires may overcome us, but each person choses to sin because that is what he or she desires to do.  Man freely chooses sin because that is what he wants.  Thus, mankind is responsible for his choices, whether good or evil (1 Cor. 5:10).

As well, the will of man is not by any necessity of nature determined to do good or evil.  Sproul states: “Here the Confession distances itself from every form of moral determinism, which would subject human choices to fixed, mechanical, or physical forces, or even to arbitrary influences of fate. In a word, Reformed theology categorically rejects fatalism and any determinism based upon the forces of nature. We are not coerced or forced by natural causes, or by our environment, either to do good or to do evil.”[3]    On the contrary, the Confession teaches that man as a free agent chooses as each person’s nature inclines them to choose.  A.A. Hodge states:

“A man freely chooses what he wants to choose. He would not choose freely if he chose in any other way. But his desire in the premises is determined by his whole intellectual and emotional state at the time…. It is plain that if the human will is decided in any given case in opposition to all the views of the reason and all the desires of the heart, however free the will might be, the man would be a most pitiful slave to a mere irrational and immoral power of willing…. All men judge that the rational and moral character of any act results from the purpose or desire, the internal state of mind or heart, which prompted the act. If man wills in any given case in opposition to all his judgments and to all his inclinations of every kind, his act in that case would obviously be neither rational nor moral; and the man himself, in respect to that act, would be neither free nor responsible…. “Christ taught…that human action is determined by the character of the agent as certainly as the nature of the fruit is determined by the nature of the tree from which it springs; and that the only way to change the character of the action is to change the permanent character or moral tendency and habit of the heart of the agent. Matt. Vii. 16-20; xii. 33-35.”[4]

In the remaining paragraphs, the Confession will address the various “states” of mankind which affect his will.   First, the Confession will address man’s “state of innocency” before the fall.  Secondly, it will show man’s “state in sin” after the fall.  Thirdly, it will explain man’s “state of grace” after conversion, and lastly, it will address the converted man’s “state in glory.”  Let’s end with two more citations from Hodge to ensure we have grasped the material as we head into these four states: “In all these estates man is unchangeably a free, responsible agent, and in all these cases choosing or refusing as, upon the whole, he prefers to do. A man’s volition is as his desires are in any given case. His desires in any given case are as they are determined to be by the general or permanent tastes, tendencies, and habitudes of his character. He is responsible for his desires, because they are determined by the nature and permanent characteristics of his own soul. He is responsible for these, because they are the tendencies and qualities of his own nature. If these are immoral, he and his actions are immoral. If these are holy, he and his actions are holy.”[5] Or simply put, as Hodge states a few pages later: “The moral condition of the heart determines the act of the will, but the act of the will cannot change the moral condition of the heart.”[6]  With this in mind, we now turn to these “states.”

FreeWill

  1. 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 was mutable, so that he might fall from it. (Ecclesiastes 7:29; Genesis 3:6)

The Confession now addresses man, in his state of innocency.  This state refers to the time before the fall; that is, before our first parent’s became guilty and corrupt as a result of their disobedience.  Prior to the fall, in that state of innocency man had freedom and power to will and to do that which was good and well-pleasing to God (see 4:2).  They had the freedom and ability to will to do good and please God.  This was true spiritual freedom, and real genuine power of will to act.  Yet…that state was… mutable, so that he might fall from it.  Adam and Eve were placed in their estate “under the possibility of transgressing” (see 4:2).  Sproul tells us that “Saint Augustine stated that in creation we had both the posse peccare (the ability to sin) and the posse non peccare (the ability not to sin).  After all, we continue to have the ability to sin, the posse peccare, but we lost the power or ability not to sin, the posse non peccare.  We were left in what Augustine called a state of moral inability.”[7]  That will be the next state we address.

Adam and Eve were in a wonderful state indeed, but this state was a trial period whereby disobedience was possible, and under the penalty of death.  As we will see, in the state of glory, that change is not a possibility.  That state of glory is not based on our perfect obedience, but upon Christ’s.  The terms of the covenant of grace are unconditional, for Christ is our surety, and since he purchased that eternal inheritance for us, the state of glory is not mutable.  So the state of glory is better than the state of innocence.

FreeWill

  1. 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. (Romans 5:6;Romans 8:7; Ephesians 2:1, 5; Titus 3:3-5; John 6:44)

The Confession begins: Man, by his fall into a state of sin. That possible loss of the state of innocency became a reality and mankind fell into a state of sin.  It was lost by the will acting upon the choice to eat the forbidden fruit.  In their state of sin, Adam and Eve became “wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body,” and that same corruption was conveyed to all mankind by ordinary generation (6:2).  Consequently, they and their posterity wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation.  Notice the words wholly and all.  They wholly lost all ability.  What ability was entirely lost? It was the ability to will to do any (i.e. all) spiritual good.  Man’s fall radically changed mankind’s state.  Mankind in the state of sin can no longer will to do any spiritual good whatsoever.  The soul’s faculties were entirely corrupted, and this included the nature of man and his will.  The loss of ability to will to do “spiritual goodis specifically related to the spiritual good that is accompanying salvation.  The Confession will clarify this spiritual good in relation to salvation in the next phrase.  But before we move to that, we should note again that the Confession does not say the natural freedom and power of the will to act upon choice is wholly lost (9:1) in the state of sin; rather, the loss is the ability to will any spiritual good regarding salvation.  Hodge states: “By ability we mean the capacity either to will in opposition to the desires and affections of the soul at the time, or by a bare exercise of volition to make oneself desire and love that which one does not spontaneously desire or love.”[8]  That ability which existed in the state of innocency is lost in the state of sin.

We now move to an explanation of this lost ability to do spiritual good accompanying salvation.  The Confession states: so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good. The natural man, or woman who is in an unregenerate fallen state is called in Scripture a “natural man” (KJV) or “natural person” in the ESV[9]:   “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” (1 Cor. 2:14 ESV).  The Confession states that the natural man: being altogether averse from that good.  The word “that” (before the word “good”) refers us back, not to doing good in general, but to the spiritual good that accompanies or leads to salvation.  The word “averse” speaks of antagonism toward that spiritual good leading to salvation.  That “averseness” is why Jesus speaks of the need for the Father’s powerful and effective drawing: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44 ESV).[10]  Without the Father’s drawing, the averseness to “that good” which accompanies salvation would forever keep the sinner from salvation.

The Confession continues: The natural man…beingdead in sin.  Here is what that deadness looks like: 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” (Eph. 2:1-3) ESV).  Notice that the natural man lives of his own free agency according to the passions of his flesh (i.e. sinful desires).  These desires are the guiding inclinations of his will; he is a slave to his sinful nature. Thus, the natural man (in his deadness to sin) is not able by his own strength to convert himself or to prepare himself thereunto.  To convert means “to change from one nature to another.” Because mankind is completely averse to spiritual good for salvation, and since he is dead to sin, he cannot change his nature so that he desires salvation.  Conversion is a supernatural act of the Holy Spirit that converts a person’s nature, enabling him to embrace the gospel of Christ; without that effectual grace a person remains unconverted—averse, unable and unwilling to obey the gospel command to repent and believe.  Since man is not forced to do either good or evil, freely choosing according to his nature, he is accountable to God for his deliberate act of refusing to obey the gospel.

Not only is the natural man unable to convert himself, but the Confession adds that he cannot even prepare himself thereunto.  In other words, he cannot even prepare himself for conversion (8:8).  Samuel Waldron makes this point in relation to this phrase:

“Preparationism is any teaching or tendency that tells men that they must do something before they believe in Christ and repent for their sin. This has seemed the natural inference to be drawn from total inability by some. Since men cannot come to Christ and God must give the grace, they have concluded that men ought to be told to do something else first. Such people often tell men, for instance, to pray for a new heart. Not only are such conclusions illogical, they undermine the gospel. If men can do nothing spiritually good before they are saved, then anything they do beside complying with the initial demands of the gospel is not good. The first spiritually good thing which God ever enables any man to do is to repent and believe in the gospel. Therefore, that is the first thing they must be told to do. Furthermore, to tell men to do anything unto their salvation besides, “Repent and believe the gospel!” is not the biblical gospel, but a counterfeit.”[11]

Even though man still has free agency as defined in paragraph 1, yet paragraph 3 has taught us that the fall so corrupted the nature of mankind that the will of man lost its ability to act in any way spiritually good as it relates to salvation.  One might ask—with a sense of hopelessness—what the disciples asked: “Then who can be saved?”  But as Jesus said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God’” (Luke 18:26-27 ESV).  This paragraph sets the stage for the next chapter, Of Effectual Calling, where the very thing the natural man is unable to do, that is, convert himself, God does by his effective call—by the power of the Holy Spirit making the natural man alive unto God. Scripture states of this work of conversion: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:4-5 ESV).  This work is also spoken of in Titus:But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit”(Titus 3:4-5 ESV).   God’s effective grace converts us that we may obey the gospel command to repent and believe.

 FreeWill

  1. 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 corruptions, he doth not perfectly, nor only will, that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil. (Colossians 1:13; John 8:36; Philippians 2:13; Romans 7:15, 18, 19, 21, 23)

We now move from the state of sin, covered in the last paragraph, to the state of grace.  The Confession begins: When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace.  Scripture says God “hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son” (Col. 1:13 KJV).  This passage speaks of God’s converting power.  When God converts, God frees him [a sinner] from his natural bondage under sin.  The phrase: “natural bondage under sin,” refers to the natural man’s state of sin.  Scripture states of conversion: “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, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness(Romans 6:17-18 ESV).  By God’s effective grace, the natural man is transformed from his natural bondage in sin to a free spiritual man (1 Cor. 2:14-15). Since God translates into a new state by his grace, it is called the “state of grace.”  It is a state only possible by God’s effectual grace.

By this conversion of sovereign effective grace, man’s state, nature, inclination and character are changed—and that affects the will.   How so?  The Confession states: by his grace alone enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good.  Notice the contrast; in paragraph 3, man “hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation.” But here in the state of grace one is enabled “to freely will and do spiritually good.”  There is a substantial change of nature here.  The Bible states: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36 ESV).  And, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure(Phil 2:12-13 ESV).  God’s work of translating the natural man to the state of grace is remarkable, and literally life changing.  We find our soul soaring as we marvel at this transformation from the bondage of the will, to the freedom of the will.  We have moved towards a freedom and power to will and to do good that was lost in the fall.  But, the Confession is as realistic as the Bible about this state of grace; it does not bring us all the way back to that state of innocency.

The Confession adds: yet so as that by reason of his remaining corruptions, he doth not perfectly, nor only will, that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil.  The reality is that the remaining corruption, previously spoken of in chapter 6:5, still exists in our nature, and that affects our desires and choices.  A.A. Hodge states: “And yet, because of lingering remains of his old corrupt moral habit of the soul, there remains a conflict of tendencies, so that the Christian does not perfectly nor only will that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil.”[12]  The Apostle Paul, speaking of this remaining corruption in his own life, states: “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Romans 7:15-23 ESV).[13]  All believers are familiar with this struggle, but we should take heart because even the Apostle Paul had to deal with that remaining corruption.

FreeWill

  1. This will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to good alone in the state of glory only. (Ephesians 4:13)

What happens to the will of man in the state of glory?   1) This will of man is made perfectly…free to good alone.  2) The will of man is made… immutably free to good alone.  What a wondrous state that will be; there our will is to be made perfectly free from corruption that we may to good alone.  R.C. Sproul states:  “In heaven, when we are in glory, we are free only to obey. That is what we call royal freedom, the most wonderful freedom, where our choices will only be good. We will have no inclination whatsoever to do anything wicked or evil.”[14] As if that were not glorious enough, in addition our will is made immutable in that corruption-free state.

In chapter nine, we have covered:

  1. Man’s free agency described (endued with natural liberty and power to act upon choice)
  2. The state of man’s will before the fall (state of innocence)
  3. The state of man’s will after the fall (state of sin)
  4. The state of man’s will after conversion/regeneration (state of grace)
  5. The state of man’s will in glorification (state of glory)

With this biblical foundation, we are well-prepared to study the application of redemption, that is, the logical order in which God applies the various aspects of salvation to his elect (i.e. the ordo salutis).

———————

[1]  See The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

[2] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. II, Salvation and the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2007), 3. Bold type is original.

[3] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. II, Salvation and the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2007), 3.

[4] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 160-161.

[5] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 162.

[6] Ibid., 164.

[7] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. II, Salvation and the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2007), 3-4.

[8] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 164.

[9] Since the passage is not referring only to males, it is appropriate to update the language to reflect both genders.

[10] R.C. Sproul relates a story regarding an incident where he was debating John 6:44: “I was asked to debate this question at an Arminian school several years ago with the head of the New Testament department. When he quoted John 6:44, I mentioned to him that the Greek verb translated “draw” in this verse is the same verb that is used in the book of Acts when some men dragged Paul and Silas before the authorities for casting an evil spirit out of their slave girl (Acts 16:19). Those men did not try to entice them to come before the magistrates; they compelled them to come. The professor interrupted: “But there are references in the Greek poet Euripides (or somebody) where this same verb refers to drawing water out of a well.” Smiling to the audience, he asked, “And Dr. Sproul, does anybody compel the water to come out of the well?” Everybody laughed, and I responded, “How do you get water from a well? Do you stand at the top of the well and call, “Here, water, water, water”? Or is that water dead in the pit and absolutely inert unless you lower the bucket into the water and you drag it up to the surface?” R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. II, Salvation and the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2007), 9.

[11] Samuel E. Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition, 3rd ed. (Webster, Ny.: Evangelical Press, 1999), 145.

 

[12] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 165.

[13] John Murray indicates that in Romans 7:7-13 Paul speaks of his pre-regenerate state, but that in verses 7:14- 25 he speaks of regenerate state with its remaining corruption.  John Murray, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols. In one edition (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1968), 255-273.

[14] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. II, Salvation and the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2007), 10-11.

 

 

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