A recent book argues that where there is no free will, there can be no responsibility. Is this true?
It is neither true nor new! It stems from the difficulty of seeking to reconcile man’s responsibility with God’s sovereignty. These two facets of the truth are like the two sides of a coin which I have to view separately. I am not called upon to reconcile them, but I am called upon to believe both. While we may not understand everything in the Scriptures, we must believe everything. Indeed, unless we believe everything, we will never properly understand anything. The Scriptures teach that man has no free will; they also teach that man is responsible to God.
Firstly, let us see the fallacy of free–will. John 3 clearly teaches that new birth is a vital necessity for man, because he is not only lost but dead in offences and sins (see Eph 2: 1) and thus needs life. The fact that Peter speaks of new birth as “being born again” (1 Pet. 1: 23—my emphasis) clearly infers that we are to parallel and compare new, spiritual birth with natural birth. I had nothing to do with my natural birth: I had no part in determining when, where, how or even if I would be born. Likewise I have nothing to do with my new birth. New birth and the will of man, free or otherwise, are mutually exclusive: “who have been born, not of blood, nor of flesh’s will, nor of man’s will, but of God” (John 1: 13—my emphasis). It was the sovereign act of God: “According to his own will begat he us by the word of truth” (James 1: 18—my emphasis). Free will and new birth are mutually exclusive! Far from man’s will being free to make moral choices, we read that “the mind of the flesh” (the natural unconverted state) “is enmity against God” (Rom. 8: 7). Without God’s sovereign operation in man, he cannot come to Christ (see John 6: 44).
Secondly, let us look at man’s responsibility. The writer’s argument assumes that responsibility requires free–will and thus ability in a person to carry out his responsibility. Consider an example: Two men each borrow money from a bank and squander it. Clearly, neither has any ability to repay their loans. Does their responsibility depend on their ability to repay? The writer of the book would have to say yes. The bank would definitely say no. Further, one debtor may genuinely want to repay the loan, the other may have no such desire. Which is the more responsible? Neither, because responsibility does not depend on will, one way or the other. Responsibility depends on relationships (lender–borrower, master–servant, husband–wife, God–man). In NT times there were masters, servants and slaves. The mark of the slave was that he had no will of his own, only his master’s. Of the six words that can be translated servant in the NT, the word that Paul chose for our unconverted state when he says that we were “bondmen of sin” (Rom. 6: 17) was douloi—slaves. Sin was our master and we served him (see Rom. 6: 65)––we had no free will. It is not just that man will not come to Christ but that he cannot come unless “it be given to him from the Father” (John 6: 65). If I can chose to believe in Christ as an unconverted person, what in me makes the choice? The flesh? Without new birth, there is nothing else. Will the flesh chose Christ? No––hence the need for new birth.
Adam’s one sin constituted all men as sinners (see Rom. 5: 19) and all are thus lost as they are born in sin (see Ps. 51: 5). Although man is “sold under sin” (Rom 7: 14), he has the knowledge of “good and evil” (Gen. 3: 22), a conscience knowing right from wrong, and thus the obligation to do the good. However, God is infinitely fair and no man is ever condemned for being a sinner. Accountability is based, not on what we are, but on what we have done. I read in regard to the judgment of God that He “shall render to each according to his works” (Rom. 2: 6). When unregenerate men stand before the great white throne, they are “judged each according to their works” (Rev. 20: 13). While they are lost because their names are absent from the book of life, the severity of their judgment is according to what they have done (see Luke 12: 47, 48) . We may not understand everything about these things but with the apostle we will say “Far be the thought” to the question “[Is there] unrighteousness with God?” (Rom. 9: 14). The testimony of the Bible is that “Salvation is of Jehovah” (Jonah 2: 9). Free will is a false doctrine which in essence does not own that man is completely and utterly lost.