The Fantasy of Free Will
In certain Christian circles and in human theology, the doctrine is propounded that God has given man a free will: he can choose. Man can choose to do good or he can choose to do evil; the choice is his. In the context of the Gospel, he can choose to accept Christ as Saviour or he can choose to reject Him. The decision lies with man. Hence many a Gospel preacher exhorts his audience to “decide for Christ” as if the ability to do so rests with man. Is this so? Has man really got a free will? Let us look at the Scriptures.
Without question none determine their natural birth. I never had any say in regard to if, how, where or when I was born into the world. Paul asks in regard to another matter: “Does not even nature itself teach you?”, (1 Cor. 11: 14). Now every believer has been “born again”, (1 Pet. 1: 23), and that very term “born again” clearly parallels a believer’s natural birth with his spiritual birth. Hence in being “born again” the Bible makes it abundantly clear as to who did, and who did not, cause that birth: “to those that believe on his name; who have been born, not of blood, nor of flesh’s will, nor of man’s will, but of God, (John 1: 12, 13). This verse shows beyond all controversy that man’s will, free or otherwise, has absolutely nothing to do with being born of God. Being born again is the result of the sovereign action of the Spirit of God: “The wind blows where it will, and thou hearest its voice, but knowest not whence it comes and where it goes: thus is every one that is born of the Spirit”, (John 3: 8). To be born anew is absolutely vital for man’s blessing. The Son of God said “Except any one be born anew he cannot see the kingdom of God”, (John 3: 3). It is impossible to see, let alone enter, (see John 3: 5), the kingdom of God without being born anew. There is no spiritual blessing apart from new birth and the very terminology of new birth excludes the idea of any exercise of will on the part of the one who is born again. Just as my natural birth was entirely outside of my control, in exactly the same way I had nothing to do with my spiritual birth. The concept of free–will is diametrically opposed to the Scriptural truth of new birth. New birth and the will of man, free or otherwise, are mutually exclusive.
The result of God’s initial work in the soul culminating in new birth gives a man to realise that far from having a free will he is in bondage to sin. Try and find free–will in the exercises of Rom. 7! I have no doubt that the exercises described there are those of a soul in whom God has begun a work, but there is no stability of soul, no settled peace. It may be the exercise of soul before the Gospel has been presented and accepted in faith; it may be the deep exercise of soul after the Gospel has been believed but self has not been fully known and sin in all its subtlety has not been exposed. Thus while it is not true Christian experience, it may be the experience of many Christians. Nonetheless, either way, what God begins He will end: “having confidence of this very thing, that he who has begun in you a good work will complete it unto Jesus Christ’s day”, (Phil. 1: 6).
Confining myself to the subject in question, I read in Rom. 7: 15 “For that which I do, I do not own: for not what I will, this I do; but what I hate, this I practise”. This man’s mind is renewed—he wants to do good but instead of doing what he wants, he does what he hates. Where is free–will here? This man is in bondage. “For I do not practise the good that I will; but the evil I do not will, that I do”, (v19). Far from discovering a will that is free to do as it likes, he is in bondage to sin. Once he may have thought he was free: “I was alive without law once” (v9) but new birth gave him to see the awful truth that man is in bondage “For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man: but I see another law in my members, warring in opposition to the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which exists in my members,” (Rom. 7: 22, 23). This chapter exposes free–will for what it is—the myth of men, the product of a pride that will not admit that man is not only lost but dead as well. A man is in bondage to sin until the power of the Gospel frees him from sin. He is a slave and a slave has no will of his own—only the will of his master. So Paul says in Rom. 1: 16 that the Gospel is “God’s power to salvation”. Until a person believes the Gospel he is sin’s slave; after he believes the Gospel, like Paul, he is Christ’s bond slave. In either case there is no free–will.
Does my blessing require God’s mercy? Of course, but if I have a free–will then I have made God’s mercy redundant! In this great epistle that presses man’s responsibility, we have the most detailed Scriptural argument on God’s sovereignty, and that sovereignty is seen in the exercise of mercy. How does man’s so–called free–will fit in here? Rom. : 9 14—16 states “What shall we say then? [Is there] unrighteousness with God? Far be the thought. For he says to Moses, I will shew mercy to whom I will shew mercy, and I will feel compassion for whom I will feel compassion. So then [it is] not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that shews mercy.” It is “not of him that wills ... but of God that shews mercy”. Could words be any plainer? Unless God shews mercy, man is doomed to hell. That he can secure blessing by the exercise of his will, is a fallacy of the pride of man. Man is so utterly lost that blessing is only possible if God intervenes in mercy. So at the end of his argument on God’s sovereign mercy, Paul sums up in Rom. 11: 32 and says “For God hath shut up together all in unbelief, in order that he might shew mercy to all.” Jew or Gentile ultimately come into blessing on the self–same ground, that is by the mercy of God. Man needs God’s mercy because he is completely lost. He does not become lost when he passes from time to eternity—he is lost right now.
A dog bites. But a dog is not a dog because it bites, but it bites because it is a dog. Likewise man sins because he is a sinner; he is not a sinner because he sins. Men are not born innocent and become sinners, they are sinners by birth. “For as indeed by the disobedience of the one man the many have been constituted sinners, ...” (Rom. 5: 19). Adam’s sin constituted all men sinners. People speak of innocent babies and innocent children but they are not exactly so for they have the taint of sin upon them. Man is born a sinner—or did David get it wrong when he said “Behold, in iniquity was I brought forth, and in sin did my mother conceive me”, (Ps. 51: 5). Does that sound like innocency? In speaking of children in Matt. 18: 11, the Lord says “For the Son of man has come to save that which was lost.” None are innocent—all are lost. The child of one hour is just as lost as the man of one hundred years. Children may not be hardened in sin but neither are they innocent. They are lost. The babe needs the work of Christ just as much as the aged patriarch. There is “salvation for all men”, (Tit. 2: 11), Christ “gave himself a ransom for all”, (1 Tim. 2: 6), He “died for all”, (2 Cor. 5: 14). I do not think a child is held responsible until he has passed the stage of not “having done anything good or worthless”, (Rom. 9: 11) and until that stage is reached he will not come into judgement because judgement is “according to their works”, (Rev. 20: 12). A man is not responsible for being a sinner, he has no control over that, but he is responsible for his actions, for what he does. Judgement is according to what a person has done, not according to who he is. Thus until children are deemed by God responsible they are not judged and the Lord says in regard to them “So it is not the will of your Father who is in [the] heavens that one of these little ones should perish”, (Matt. 18: 14).
The idea of free–will ministers to the pretence of the natural man not to be entirely lost, for that is what it amounts to. If Christ came to save that which was lost, free–will has no place. However, the Bible is even more severe on man’s natural state because not only is he said to be lost but dead as well. Now if you still think that man has a free will, tell me what sort of will a dead man can exercise—why none at all! Can a dead man by the exercise of his will return to life? The Ephesians were reminded that their natural estate was one of “being dead in your offences and sins”, (Eph. 2: 1). It is indisputable that once in death, natural or spiritual, man will stay there unless God acts. God alone quickens the dead, no one else. Thus a little later, (Eph. 2: 4), we read “but God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love wherewith he loved us, .... has quickened us”. Then he opens the matter out and says “For ye are saved by grace, through faith; and this not of yourselves; it is God’s gift: not on the principle of works, that no one might boast. For we are his workmanship”, (Eph 2: 8–10). Thus even faith comes from God as His gift. Many have contested this I know, some saying that salvation is the gift and others that grace is the gift. The pronoun “it” in “it is God’s gift”, like all pronouns refers back to a previous noun. But the noun “salvation” does not occur—the apostle uses the verb form “saved”. Hence the gift here is not salvation. Neither can it be grace, although of course both grace and faith are nouns, because to say “by grace.... and this not of yourselves” is simply nonsense. However, faith might be supposed to be of ourselves, therefore the Spirit of God adds “and this not of yourselves; it is God’s gift” confirming the matter by what follows: “not on the principle of works, that no one might boast. For we are his workmanship”.
While on the one hand the Gospel is universal and the promise of the Lord Jesus is “him that comes to me I will not at all cast out”, (John 6: 37), yet man is so wicked and corrupt that “No one can come to me except the Father who has sent me draw him”, (John 6: 44). There is no will or desire on man’s part to come: God may say “Come, for already all things are ready” but man’s response is “And all began, without exception, to excuse themselves”, (Luke 14: 17, 18). Again the Lord said “ye will not come to me that ye might have life”, (John 5: 40). Man’s will is not free, it is only disposed to do evil.
Even philosophically, free–will is absurd. If man has a free will to choose then he must be indifferent, otherwise as regards his will he has already chosen. To have free–will he must be absolutely indifferent, but if he is indifferent what is to decide his choice? As a creature, man must have a motive and if he has a motive for his choice then his will cannot be free.
In conclusion, the perversity of the spurious doctrine of free will is that while in measure it may acknowledge the necessity of the work of Christ for man, it definitely denies the need for the work of God in him. Both are absolutely vital for man’s salvation. Man cannot believe unless God works in him and gives him the faith. Left to himself he will reject the Gospel. Hence the Gospel and the Saviour are never presented exactly for man’s choice. In the O.T. God may say “choose you this day whom ye will serve;” (Josh. 24: 15) and again, (Deut. 30: 19), “I call heaven and earth to witness this day against you: life and death have I set before you, blessing and cursing: choose then life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed,” but now, now that man has rejected and crucified God’s beloved Son, thus proving himself to be hopelessly lost the word is different: Acts 17: 30 “God therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, now enjoins men that they shall all everywhere repent....”. God does not ask man to decide, He commands (enjoins) him to repent.