The Arguments Usually Alleged in Support of Free Will Refuted

by John Calvin

Objections reduced to three principal heads:-
I. Four absurdities advanced by the opponents of the orthodox doctrine concerning the slavery of the will, stated and refuted, sec. 1-5.
II. The passages of Scripture which they pervert in favour of their error, reduced to five heads, and explained, sec. 6-15.
III. Five other passages quoted in defence of free will expounded, sec. 16-19.

(Answers to arguments for free will alleged on grounds of common sense, 1-5)


It would seem that enough had been said concerning the bondage of man's will, were it not for those who by a false notion of freedom try to cast down this conception and allege in opposition some reasons of their own to assail our opinion. First, they heap up various absurdities to cast odium upon it, as something abhorrent also to common sense; afterward with Scriptural testimonies they contend against it. We shall beat back both siege engines in turn. If sin, they say, is a matter of necessity, it now ceases to be sin; if it is voluntary, then it can be avoided. These were also the weapons with which Pelagius assailed Augustine. Yet we do not intend to crush them by the weight of Augustine's name until we have satisfactorily treated the matter itself. I therefore deny that sin ought less to be reckoned as sin merely because it is necessary. I deny conversely the inference they draw, that because sin is voluntary it is avoidable. For if anyone may wish to dispute with God and escape judgment by pretending that he could not do otherwise, he has a ready reply, which we have brought forward elsewhere: it is not from creation but from corruption of nature that men are bound to sin and can will nothing but evil. For whence comes that inability which the wicked would freely use as an excuse, but from the fact that Adam willingly bound himself over to the devil's tyranny? Hence, therefore, the corruption that enchains us: the first man fell away from his Maker. If all men are deservedly held guilty of this rebellion, let them not think themselves excused by the very necessity in which they have the most evident cause of their condemnation. I explained this clearly above, and gave the devil himself as an example; from which it is clear that he who sins of necessity sins no less voluntarily. This is, conversely, true of the elect angels: although their will cannot turn away from good, yet it does not cease to be will. Bernard also aptly teaches the same thing: that we are the more miserable because the necessity is voluntary, a necessity which nevertheless having bound us to it, so constrains us that we are slaves of sin, as we have mentioned before. The second part of their syllogism is defective because it erroneously leaps from "voluntary" to "free." For we proved above that something not subject to free choice is nevertheless voluntarily done.


They submit that, unless both virtues and vices proceed from the free choice of the will, it is not consistent that man be either punished or rewarded. I admit that this argument, even though it is Aristotle's, is somewhere used by Chrysostom and Jerome. Yet Jerome himself does not hide the fact that it was a common argument of the Pelagians, and he even quotes their own words: "If it is the grace of God working in us, then grace, not we who do not labor, will be crowned." Concerning punishments, I reply that they are justly inflicted upon us, from whom the guilt of sin takes its source. What difference does it make whether we sin out of free or servile judgment, provided it is by voluntary desire - especially since man is proved a sinner because he is under the bondage of sin? As for the rewards of righteousness, it is a great absurdity for us to admit that they depend upon God's kindness rather than our own merits.

How often does this thought recur in Augustine: "God does not crown our merits but his own gifts"; "we call 'rewards' not what are due our merits, but what are rendered for graces already bestowed"! To be sure, they sharply note this: that no place is now left for merits if they do not have free will as their source. But in regarding this so much a matter for disagreement they err greatly. Augustine does not hesitate habitually to teach as an unavoidable fact what they think unlawful so to confess. For example, he says: "What are the merits of any men? When he comes not with a payment due but with free grace, he, alone free of sin and the liberator from it, finds all men sinners." Also: "If you shall be paid what you deserve, you must be punished. What then happens? God has not rendered you the punishment you deserve, but bestows undeserved grace. If you would be estranged from grace, boast of your own merits." Again: "Of yourself you are nothing. Sins are your own, but merits are God's. You deserve punishment, and when the reward comes be will crown his own gifts, not your merits." In the same vein he teaches elsewhere that grace does not arise from merit, but merit from grace! And a little later Augustine concludes that God precedes all merits with his gifts, that from them he may bring forth his own merits; he gives them altogether free because he finds no reason to save man. Why, then, is it necessary to list more proofs when such sentences recur again and again in Augustine's writings? Yet the apostle will even better free our adversaries from this error if they will hear from what principle he derives the glory of the saints. "Those whom he chose, he called; those whom he called, he justified; those whom he justified, he glorified." [Romans 8:30 p.] Why, then, according to the apostle, are believers crowned [2 Timothy 4:8]? Because they have been chosen and called and justified by the Lord's mercy, not by their own effort. Away, then, with this empty fear that there will be merit no longer if free will is not to stand! It is the height of foolishness to be frightened away and to flee from the very thing to which Scripture calls us. "If you received all things," he says, "why do you boast as if it were not a gift?" [1 Corinthians 4:7 p.] You see that Paul has taken everything away from free will in order not to leave any place for merits. But nevertheless, inexhaustible and manifold as God's beneficence and liberality are, he rewards, as if they were our own virtues, those graces which he bestows upon us, because he makes them ours.


Our opponents add an objection, which seems to have been drawn from Chrysostom: if to choose good or evil is not a faculty of our will, those who share in the same nature must be either all bad or all good. Close to this point of view is the writer (whoever he was) of that work, The Calling of the Gentiles, which has been circulated under Ambrose's name. He reasons: no one would ever have departed from the faith if God's grace had not left us in a mutable condition. Strange that such great men should have been so forgetful! For how did it not occur to Chrysostom that it is God's election which so distinguishes among men? Now we are not in the least afraid to admit what Paul asserts with great earnestness: all men are both depraved and given over to wickedness [cf. Romans 3:10]. But we add with him that it is through God's mercy that not all remain in wickedness. Therefore, though all of us are by nature suffering from the same disease, only those whom it pleases the Lord to touch with his healing hand will get well. The others, whom he, in his righteous judgment, passes over, waste away in their own rottenness until they are consumed. There is no other reason why some persevere to the end, while others fall at the beginning of the course. For perseverance itself is indeed also a gift of God, which he does not bestow on all indiscriminately, but imparts to whom he pleases. If one seeks the reason for the difference - why some steadfastly persevere, and others fail out of instability - none occurs to us other than that the Lord upholds the former, strengthening them by his own power, that they may not perish; while to the latter, that they may be examples of inconstancy, he does not impart the same power.


Furthermore, they insist that it is vain to undertake exhortations, pointless to make use of admonitions, foolish to reprove, unless it be within the sinner's power to obey. When Augustine long ago was met by similar objections, he was constrained to write his treatise On Rebuke and Grace. Even though in it he amply refutes those charges, he recalls his adversaries to this chief point: "O man! Learn by precept what you ought to do; learn by rebuke that it is by your own fault that you have it not; learn by prayer whence you may receive what you desire to have." In the book On the Spirit and the Letter he uses almost the same argument: God does not measure the precepts of his law according to human powers, but where he has commanded what is right, he freely gives to his elect the capacity to fulfill it. And this matter does not require long discussion. First, we are not alone in this cause, but Christ and all the apostles are with us.

Let these men look to it how they may gain the upper hand in the struggle they are waging against such antagonists. Christ declares: "Without me you can do nothing." [John 15:5.] Does he for this reason any less reprove and chastise those who apart from him have been doing evil? Or does he for this reason any less urge everyone to devote himself to good works? How severely Paul inveighs against the Corinthians for their neglect of love [1 Corinthians 3:8; 16:14]! Yet he indeed prays that the Lord may give them love. Paul says in the letter to the Romans: "It depends not upon him who wills or upon him who runs, but upon God who shows mercy" [Romans 9:16]. Still, he does not cease afterward to admonish as well as to urge and rebuke. Why do they not therefore importune the Lord not to labor in vain in requiring of men what he alone can give and in chastising what is committed out of lack of his grace? Why do they not warn Paul to spare those who do not have the power to will or to run, unless God's mercy, which has now forsaken them, goes before? As if the best reason of his teaching, which readily offers itself to those who more fervently seek it, did not rest in the Lord himself Paul writes, "Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but God who gives the growth alone acts effectively." [1 Corinthians 8:7.] In this he indicates how much teaching, exhortation, and reproof do to change the mind! Thus we see how Moses placed the commandments of the law under severe sanctions [Deuteronomy 30:19], and how the prophets bitterly menaced and threatened the transgressors. Yet they then confess that men become wise only when an understanding heart is given them [e.g., Isaiah 5:24; 24:5; Jeremiah 9:13 ff.; 16:11 ff.; 44:l0 ff.; Daniel 9:11; Amos 2:4], and that it is God's own work to circumcise hearts [cf. Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4] and to give hearts of flesh for hearts of stone [cf. Ezekiel 11:19]; his to inscribe his law on our inward parts [cf. Jeremiah 31:33]; in fine, by renewing our souls [cf. Ezekiel 36:26], to make his teaching effective.


To what purpose then are exhortations? If rejected by the ungodly out of an obstinate heart, these shall be a testimony against them when they come to the Lord's judgment seat. Even now these are striking and beating their.81 consciences. For, however much the most insolent person scoffs at them, he cannot condemn them. But, you ask, what will miserable little man do when softness of heart, which is necessary for obedience, is denied him? Indeed, what excuse will he have, seeing that he can credit hardness of heart to no one but himself? Therefore the impious, freely prepared to make sport of God's exhortations if they can, are, in spite of themselves, dumfounded by the power of them.

But we must consider their especial value for believers, in whom (as the Lord does all things through his Spirit) he does not neglect the instrument of his Word but makes effective use of it. Let this, then, be held true: all the righteousness of the pious rests upon God's grace. As the prophet said: "I will give them a new heart... that they may walk in my statutes" [Ezekiel 11:19-20]. Yet you will object, why are they now admonished about their duty, rather than left to the guidance of the Spirit? Why are they plied with exhortations, when they can hasten no more than the Spirit impels them? Why are they chastised whenever they stray from the path, when they have lapsed through the unavoidable weakness of the flesh?

O man, who are you to impose law upon God? If he wills to prepare us through exhortation to receive this very grace, by which we are made ready to obey the exhortation, what in this dispensation have you to carp or scoff at? If exhortations and reproofs profit the godly nothing except to convict them of sin, these ought not for this reason to be accounted utterly useless. Now, who would dare mock these exhortations as superfluous, since, with the Spirit acting within, they are perfectly able to kindle in us the desire for the good, to shake off sluggishness, to remove the lust for iniquity and its envenomed sweetness - on the contrary to engender hatred and loathing toward it?

If anyone wants a clearer answer, here it is: God works in his elect in two ways: within, through his Spirit; without, through his Word. By his Spirit, illuminating their minds and forming their hearts to the love and cultivation of righteousness, he makes them a new creation. By his Word, he arouses them to desire, to seek after, and to attain that same renewal. In both he reveals the working of his hand according to the mode of dispensation. When he addresses the same Word to the reprobate, though not to correct them, he makes it serve another use: today to press them with the witness of conscience, and in the Day of Judgment to render them the more inexcusable. Thus, although Christ declares that no one except him whom the Father draws can come to him, and the elect come after they have "heard and learned from the Father" [John 6:44-45], still Christ does not neglect the teacher's office, but with his own voice unremittingly summons those who need to be taught within by the Holy Spirit in order to make any progress. Paul points out that teaching is not useless among the reprobate, because it is to them "a fragrance from death to death" [2 Corinthians 2:16], yet "a sweet fragrance to God" [2 Corinthians 2:15].

(Answers to arguments for free will based on interpretation of the law, promises and rebukes of Scripture, 6-11)


Our opponents take great pains to heap up Scriptural passages: and they do this so unremittingly that, although they cannot prevail, in the numbers at least they can bear us down. But as in battle, when it comes to a hand-to- hand encounter an unwarlike multitude, however much pomp and ostentation it may display, is at once routed by a few blows and compelled to flee, so for us it will be very easy to disperse these adversaries with their host. All the passages that they misuse against us, when they have been sorted out into their classes, group themselves under a very few main headings. Hence one answer will suffice for several; it will not be necessary to dispose of each one individually.

They set chief stock by God's precepts. These they consider to be so accommodated to our capacities that we are of necessity able to fulfill all their demonstrable requirements. Consequently, they run through the individual precepts, and from them take the measure of our strength. Either God is mocking us (they say) when he enjoins holiness, piety, obedience, chastity, love, gentleness; when he forbids uncleanness, idolatry, immodesty, anger, robbery, pride, and the like; or he requires only what is within our power.

Now we can divide into three classes almost all the precepts that they heap up. Some require man first to turn toward God; others simply speak of observing the law; others bid man to persevere in God's grace once it has been received. We shall discuss them all in general, then we shall get down to the three classes themselves.

A long time ago it became the common practice to measure man's capacities by the precepts of God's law, and this has some pretense of truth. But it arose out of the crassest ignorance of the law. For, those who deem it a terrible crime to say that it is impossible to observe the law press upon us as what is evidently their strongest reason that otherwise the law was given without purpose. Indeed, they speak as if Paul had nowhere spoken of the law. What then, I ask, do these assertions mean: "The law was put forward because of transgressions" [Galatians 3:19, cf. Vg.]; "Through the law comes knowledge of sin" [Romans 3:20]; the law engenders sin [cf. Romans 7:7-8]; "Law slipped in to increase the trespass" [Romans 5:20, cf. Vg.]? Was the law to be limited to our powers so as not to be given in vain? Rather, it was put far above us, to show clearly our own weakness! Surely, according to Paul's definition of the law, its purpose and fulfillment is love [cf. 1 Timothy 1:5]. And yet when Paul prays for the hearts of the Thessalonians to abound with it [1 Thessalonians 3:12] he fully admits that the law sounds in our ears without effect unless God inspires in our hearts the whole sum of the law [cf. Matthew 22:37-40].


Of course, if Scripture taught nothing else than that the law is a rule of life to which we ought to direct our efforts, I, too, would yield to their opinion without delay. But since it faithfully and clearly explains to us the manifold use of the law, it behooves us rather to consider from that interpretation what the law can do in man. With reference to the present question, as soon as the law prescribes what we are to do, it teaches that the power to obey comes from God's goodness. It thus summons us to prayers by which we may implore that this power be given us. If there were only a command and no promise, our strength would have to be tested whether it is sufficient to respond to the command. But since with the command are at once connected promises that proclaim not only that our support, but our whole virtue as well, rests in the help of divine grace, they more than sufficiently demonstrate how utterly inept, not to say unequal, we are to observe the law. For this reason, let us no longer press this proportion between our strength and the precepts of the law, as if the Lord had applied the rule of righteousness, which he was to give in the law, according to the measure of our feebleness. We who in every respect so greatly need his grace must all the more reckon from the promises how ill-prepared we are.

But who will believe it plausible (they say) that the Lord intended his law for stocks and stones? No one is trying to argue thus. For the wicked are not rocks or stumps when they are taught through the law that their lusts are opposed to God and they become guilty on their own admission; nor are believers stocks and stones when they are warned of their own weakness and take refuge in grace. On this point these profound statements of Augustine are pertinent: "God bids us do what we cannot, that we may know what we ought to seek from him." "The usefulness of the precepts is great if free will is so esteemed that God's grace may be the more honored." "Faith achieves what the law commands." "Indeed, it is for this reason the law commands, that faith may achieve what had been commanded through the law. Indeed, God requires faith itself of us; yet he does not find something to require unless he has given something to find." Again, "Let God give what he commands, and command what he will."


This will be more clearly seen in reviewing the three classes of precepts that we have touched on above. (1) Oftentimes both in the Law and in the Prophets the Lord commands us to be converted to him [Joel 2:12; Ezekiel 18:30-32; Hosea 14:2 f.]. On the other hand, the prophet answers: "Convert me, O Lord, and I will be converted... for after thou didst convert me I repented," etc. [Jeremiah 31:18-19, Vg.]. He bids us circumcise the foreskin of our heart [Deuteronomy 10:16; cf. Jeremiah 4:4]. But through Moses he declares that this circumcision is done by His own hand [Deuteronomy 30:6]. In some places he requires newness of heart [Ezekiel 18:31], but elsewhere he testifies that it is given by him [Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26]. "But what God promises," as Augustine says, "we ourselves do not do through choice or nature; but he himself does through grace." This observation he lists in fifth place among the rules of Tychonius: we must distinguish carefully between the law and the promises, or between the commandments and grace. Now away with those who infer from the precepts that man is perhaps capable of obedience, in order to destroy God's grace through which the commandments themselves are fulfilled. (2) The precepts of the second kind are simple: by them we are bidden to honor God, to serve his will and cleave to it, to observe his decrees, and to follow his teaching. But there are countless passages that bear witness that whatever righteousness, holiness, piety, and purity we can have are gifts of God. (3) Of the third type is the exhortation of Paul and Barnabas to believers "to remain under God's grace," referred to by Luke [Acts 13:43]. But Paul also in another place teaches the source from which that virtue of constancy is to be sought. "It remains, brethren," he says, "for you to be strong in the Lord." [Ephesians 6:10 p.] Elsewhere he forbids us to "grieve the Spirit of God in whom we were sealed for the day of our redemption" [Ephesians 4:30 p.]. Since men cannot fulfill what is there required, Paul asks of the Lord in behalf of the Thessalonians to "render them worthy of his holy calling and to fulfill every good resolve of his goodness and work of faith in them" [2 Thessalonians 1:11 p.]. In the same way Paul, dealing in the second letter to the Corinthians with alms, often commends their good and devout will [cf. 2 Corinthians 8:11]. Yet a little later he gives thanks to God, "who has put in the heart of Titus to receive exhortation" [2 Corinthians 8:16 p.]. If Titus could not even make use of his mouth to exhort others except in so far as God prompted it, how could others be willing to act unless God himself directed their hearts?


The craftier of our opponents quibble over all these testimonies, holding that nothing hinders us from bringing all our strength to bear while God supports our weak efforts. They also bring forward passages from the Prophets in which the carrying out of our conversion seems to be divided equally between God and ourselves. "Be converted to me and I shall be converted to you." [Zechariah 1:3.] What assistance the Lord provides us has been demonstrated above, and there is no need to repeat it here. I wish this one thing at least to be conceded to me: it is pointless to require in us the capacity to fulfill the law, just because the Lord demands our obedience to it, when it is clear that for the fulfillment of all God's commands the grace of the Lawgiver is both necessary and is promised to us.

Hence it is evident that at least more is required of us than we can pay. And that statement of Jeremiah cannot be refuted by any cavils: that the covenant of God made with the ancient people was invalid because it was only of the letter; moreover, that it is not otherwise established than when the Spirit enters into it to dispose their hearts to obedience [Jeremiah 31:32-33]. Nor does this sentence lend support to their error: "Be converted to me and I shall be converted to you" [Zechariah 1:3]. For God's conversion there signifies not that by which he renews our hearts to repentance, but that by which he testifies through our material prosperity that he is kindly and well disposed toward us, just as by adverse circumstances he sometimes indicates his displeasure toward us. Since, therefore, the people, harassed by many sorts of miseries and calamities, complain that God is turned away from them, he replies that they will not lack his lovingkindness if they return to an upright life and to himself, who is the pattern of righteousness. Therefore they wrongly twist this passage when they infer from it that the work of conversion seems to be shared between God and men. We have touched this matter the more briefly because its proper place will be under the discussion of the law.


The second class of arguments is very closely related to the first. They cite the promises in which the Lord makes a covenant with our will. Such are: "Seek good and not evil, and you will live." [Amos 5:14 p.] "If you will and hearken, you will eat of the good things of the earth; but if you will not,... a sword will devour you, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken." [Isaiah 1:19-20, Vg.] Again, "If you remove your abominations from my presence, you will not be cast out." [Jeremiah 4:1, cf. Comm.] "If you obey the voice of Jehovah your God, being careful to do all his commandments... the Lord will set you high above all the nations of the earth" [Deuteronomy 28:1, cf. Vg.]; and other like passages [Leviticus 26:3 ff.].

These blessings which the Lord offers us in his promises they think to be referred to our will unsuitably and in mockery, unless it is in our power either to realize them or make them void. And it is quite easy to amplify this matter with such eloquent complaints as: "We are cruelly deluded by the Lord, when he declares that his lovingkindness depends upon our will, if the will itself is not under our control. This liberality of God would be remarkable if he so unfolded his blessings to us that we had no capacity to enjoy them! Wonderfully certain promises these - dependent upon an impossible thing, never to be fulfilled!" We shall speak elsewhere concerning such promises, which have a condition adjoined, so that it will become clear that there is nothing absurd in the impossibility of their fulfillment. In so far as this point is concerned, I deny that God cruelly deludes us when, though knowing us to be utterly powerless, he invites us to merit his blessings. Now since promises are offered to believers and impious alike, they have their usefulness for both groups.

As God by his precepts pricks the consciences of the impious in order that they, oblivious to his judgments, may not too sweetly delight in their sins, so in his promises he in a sense calls them to witness how unworthy they are of his loving-kindness. For who would deny that it is entirely fair and fitting that the Lord bless those who honor him, but punish according to his severity those who despise his majesty? God therefore acts duly.88 and in order when in his promises he lays down this law for the impious lettered by sin: only if they depart from wickedness will they at last receive his blessings, even for the simple purpose of having them understand that they are justly excluded from those blessings due the true worshipers of God.

On the other hand, since he strives in every way to spur believers to implore his grace, it will be not at all incongruous for him to attempt through his promises the same thing that, as we have shown, he has through his precepts already accomplished for their sake. When God by his precepts teaches us concerning his will, he apprizes us of our misery and how wholeheartedly we disagree with his will. At the same time he prompts us to call upon his Spirit to direct us into the right path. But because our sluggishness is not sufficiently aroused by precepts, promises are added in order, by a certain sweetness, to entice us to love the precepts. The greater our desire for righteousness, the more fervent we become to seek God's grace. That is how by these entreaties, "If you are willing," "If you hearken," the Lord neither attributes to us the free capacity to will or to hearken, nor yet does he mock us for our impotence.


The third class of their arguments bears a close resemblance to the two preceding. For our opponents bring forward passages wherein God reproaches his ungrateful people that it was their own fault that they did not receive every sort of good thing from his tender mercy. Of this sort are the following passages: "Amalekites and Canaanites are before you, and you shall fall by their sword because you will not obey the Lord" [Numbers 14:43, Vg.]. "Because... I called to you and you did not answer, I shall do to this house... as I did to Shiloh." [Jeremiah 7:13-14, Vg.] Again, "This... nation... did not obey the voice of the Lord their God, and did not accept discipline" [Jeremiah 7:28, Vg.]; for this reason it is rejected by the Lord [Jeremiah 7:29]. Again, Because you have hardened your heart and have not been willing to obey the Lord, all these evils have come upon you [cf. Jeremiah 19:15. How, they say, could such reproaches apply against those who may at once reply: We cherished prosperity, we feared adversity. If we have not obeyed the Lord, nor heeded his voice, to obtain prosperity and avoid adversity, this came about because we were not free from bondage to the domination of sin. We are therefore without reason reproached for evils that it was not in our power to escape.

But disregarding the pretext of necessity, a weak and futile defense, I ask whether they can excuse the fault. For if they are held guilty of any fault, the Lord with reason reproaches them for not feeling, because of their perversity, the benefit of his kindness. Let them therefore answer whether they can deny that the cause of their obstinacy was their own perverse will. If they find the source of evil within themselves, why do they strain after external causes so as not to seem the authors of their own destruction? But if it is true that sinners are through their own fault both deprived of divine blessings and chastened by punishments, there is good reason why they should hearken to these reproaches from God's mouth. It is that if they obstinately persist in vices, they may learn in calamities to accuse and loathe their own worthlessness rather than to charge God with unjust cruelty; that if they have not cast off teachableness and if they are wearied with their own sins (because of which they see themselves miserable and lost), they may return to the path and acknowledge with earnest confession this very thing, namely, that the Lord reminds them by reproof.

What use the reproofs of the prophets serve among the godly is clear from the magnificent prayer of Daniel, given in the ninth chapter [Daniel 9:4-19]. We observe an example of the first use among the Jews, to whom God commanded Jeremiah to explain the cause of their miseries. Yet these things could not have happened in any other way than as the Lord had foretold: "You shall speak all these words to them, and they will not listen to you. You shall call to them, and they will not answer you" [Jeremiah 7:27, Vg.]. To what purpose then did they sing to the deaf? That even against their will they might understand what they were hearing to be true: that it is wicked sacrilege to transfer to God the blame for their own misfortunes, which lay in themselves.

The enemies of God's grace customarily pile up these innumerable proofs, derived from his commandments and from his protestations against the transgressors of the law, to give the delusion of free will. But by these few explanations you can very easily free yourself from them. In a psalm the Jews are reproached as "a wicked generation... that kept not its heart straight" [Psalm 78:8; 77:8, Vg.]. Also, in another psalm, the prophet urges the men of his age not to "harden their hearts" [Psalm 95:8]. Surely this is because the blame for all stubbornness rests in the wickedness of men; but from this fact it is foolishly inferred that the heart, since the Lord has prepared it [cf. Proverbs 16:1], can be bent alike to either side. The prophet says: "I have inclined my heart to perform thy statutes" [Psalm 119:112], namely, because he had pledged himself willingly and with cheerful attitude of mind to God. And yet he does not boast of himself as the author of his inclination, which he confesses in the same psalm to be the gift of God [Psalm 119:36]. We ought therefore to heed Paul's warning, when he bids believers, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work... both to will and to accomplish" [Philippians 2:12-13 p.]. Indeed, he assigns tasks to them to do so that they may not indulge the sluggishness of the flesh. But enjoining fear and carefulness, he so humbles them that they remember what they are bidden to do is God's own work. By it he clearly intimates that believers act passively, so to speak, seeing that the capacity is supplied from heaven, that they may claim nothing at all for themselves. Then, while Peter urges us "to supplement our faith with virtue" [2 Peter 1:5], he does not assign us secondary tasks as if we could do anything independently, but he is only arousing the indolence of the flesh, by which faith itself is very often choked. Paul's statement, "Do not quench the Spirit" [1 Thessalonians 5:19], means the same thing, because sloth continually steals upon believers unless it be corrected. Yet if anyone should conclude from this that it is in their choice to nourish the light given them, such stupidity will be easily refuted, for this very earnestness which Paul enjoins comes from God alone [2 Corinthians 7:1].

We are in fact often bidden to purge ourselves of all filthiness, even though the Spirit claims for himself alone the office of sanctifying. In fine, it is clear from John's words that what belongs to God is transferred by concession to us: "Whoever is born of God keeps himself" [1 John 5:18]. The proclaimers of free will seize upon this verse, as if we were preserved partly by God's power, partly by our own. As if we did not have from heaven this very preservation of which the apostle reminds us! Hence also Christ asks the Father to keep us from evil [John 17:15, cf. Vg.]. And we know that the pious, while they are fighting against Satan, attain victory by God's weapons alone [cf. Ephesians 6:13 ff.]. For this reason, Peter, when he enjoined us to purify our souls in obedience to truth, soon added by way of correction "through the Spirit" [1 Peter 1:22]. In short, John briefly shows how all human powers are of no avail in spiritual combat when he teaches that "they who are born of God cannot sin, for a seed of God abides in them" [1 John 3:9 p.]. And in another passage he gives the reason: "This is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith" [1 John 5:4].

(Answers to arguments based on special passages and incidents in Scripture, 12-19)


Yet our opponents cite a passage from the law of Moses that seems to be strongly opposed to our explanation. For, after promulgating the law, Moses calls the people to witness in this manner: "For this commandment which I command you this day is not obscure, nor is it far off, nor is it in heaven... But it is near you... in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it" [Deuteronomy 30:11-12, 14 p.]. Now if these words be understood as spoken concerning the bare precepts, I admit that they are of no slight importance for the present case. For even though it would be an easy matter to dodge the issue by contending that this has to do with man's capacity and disposition to understand the commandments, not with his ability to observe them, nevertheless perhaps some scruple would thus also remain. But the apostle, our sure interpreter, removes our every doubt when he declares that Moses here spoke of the teaching of the gospel [Romans 10:8]. But suppose some obstinate person contends that Paul violently twisted these words to make them refer to the gospel. Although such a man's boldness will not be lacking in impiety, yet we have a means of refuting him apart from the apostle's authority. For if Moses was speaking of the precepts only, he inspired in the people the vainest confidence. For what else would they have done but dash into ruin, if they had set out to keep the law by their own strength, as if it were easy for them? Where is that ready capacity to keep the law, when the only access to it lies over a fatal precipice? It is perfectly clear then that by these words Moses meant the covenant of mercy that he had promulgated along with the requirements of the law. For a few verses before he had also taught that our hearts must needs be circumcised by God's hand for us to love him [Deuteronomy 30:6]. He therefore lodged that ability, of which he immediately thereafter speaks, not in the power of man, but in the help and protection of the Holy Spirit, who mightily carries out his work in our weakness. Nevertheless, we are not to understand this passage as referring simply to the precepts, but rather to the promises of the gospel; and they, far from establishing in us the capacity to obtain righteousness, utterly destroy it. Paul confirms this testimony that in the gospel salvation is not offered under that hard, harsh, and impossible condition laid down for us by the law - that only those who have fulfilled all the commandments will finally attain it - but under an easy, ready, and openly accessible condition. Therefore this Scripture [Romans 10] has no value in establishing the freedom of the human will.


By way of objection they commonly raise certain other passages, which show that God sometimes, having withdrawn the assistance of his grace, tries men and waits to see to what purpose they will turn their efforts. So Hosea says: "I shall go to my place, until they lay it upon their hearts to seek my face" [Hosea 5:15 p.]. It would be a ridiculous thing, they say, for the Lord to consider whether Israel would seek his face, if their minds were not capable of inclining either way through their own natural ability. As if it were not extremely common for God through his prophets to appear as one despising and rejecting his people until they should change their lives for the betel But what finally will our opponents deduce from such threats? If they mean that this people, forsaken by God, can of themselves set their minds on a conversion, they are doing so in the teeth of all Scripture. If they admit that God's grace is necessary for conversion, what quarrel do they have with us? Yet they concede grace to be necessary in such a way as to reserve to man his own ability. On what basis do they prove it? Surely not from that passage or like passages. For it is one thing to withdraw from man, and to consider what he may do when left to his own devices. It is something else to aid his powers, such as they are, in proportion to their weakness.

What, then, someone will ask, do these expressions signify? I reply that their significance is as if God were to say: "Inasmuch as warning, urging, and rebuking have no effect upon this stubborn people, I shall withdraw for a little while and quietly permit them to be afflicted. I shall see whether at any time after long calamities the remembrance of me lays hold on them so that they seek my face." The Lord's going far away signifies his withdrawal of prophecy from them. His considering what men then might do means that for a time he quietly and as it were secretly tries them with various afflictions. He does both to make us more humble. For we would sooner be beaten down by the lashes of adversity than be corrected, if he did not by his Spirit render us teachable. Now, when the Lord, offended and even wearied by our obstinate stubbornness, leaves us for a short time - that is, removes his Word, in which he habitually reveals something of his presence - and makes trial of what we might do in his absence, from this we falsely gather that we have some power of free will for him to observe and test. For he does it for no other purpose than to compel us to recognize our own nothingness.


They also argue from the manner of speaking customary both in the Scripture and in the words of men: good works are indeed called "ours"; and we are credited just as much with doing what is holy and pleasing to the Lord, as with committing sins. But if sins are rightly imputed to us as coming from ourselves, surely for the same reason some part in righteous acts ought to be assigned to us. And it would not be consonant with reason to say that we do those things which we are incapable of carrying out by our own effort and are moved like stones by God to do. Therefore, although we give the primary part to God's grace, yet those expressions indicate that our effort holds second place.

If our opponents simply urge that good works are called "ours," I will object in turn that the bread that we petition God to give us is also called "ours" [cf. Matthew 6:11]. What does the possessive pronoun "ours" signify to them but that what is otherwise by no means due us becomes ours by God's lovingkindness and free gift? Therefore they must either ridicule the same absurdity in the Lord's Prayer, or recognize that good works, in which we have nothing of our own save by God's bounty, are not foolishly called "ours."

Yet the second objection is a little stronger: Scripture often affirms that we ourselves worship God, preserve righteousness, obey the law, and are zealous in good works. Since these are the proper functions of the mind and will, how can one refer them to the Spirit and at the same time attribute them to ourselves, unless our zeal shares something of the divine power? We can easily dispose of these trifling objections if we duly reflect upon the way in which the Spirit of the Lord acts upon the saints. That comparison which they spitefully throw at us does not apply. For who is such a fool as to assert that God moves man just as we throw a stone? And nothing like this follows from our teaching. To man's natural faculties we refer the acts of approving and rejecting, willing and not willing, striving and resisting. That is, approving vanity and rejecting perfect good; willing evil and not willing good; striving toward wickedness and resisting righteousness. What does the Lord do in this? If he wills to utilize such depravity as the instrument of his wrath, he directs and disposes it as he pleases to carry out his good works through man's corrupt hand. Shall we then compare a wicked man, who thus serves God's might while he strives to obey only his own lust, to a stone set in motion by an outside force, and borne along by no motion, sensation, or will of its own? We see how great the difference is.

But what about good men, concerning whom there is particular question here? When the Lord establishes his Kingdom in them, he restrains their will by his Spirit that it may not according to its natural inclination be dragged to and fro by wandering lusts. That the will may be disposed to holiness and righteousness, He bends, shapes, forms, and directs, it to the rule of his righteousness. That it may not totter and fall, he steadies and strengthens it by the power of his Spirit. In this vein Augustine says:. "You will say to me, 'therefore we are acted upon and do not act ourselves.' Yes, you act and are acted upon. And if you are acted upon by one who is good, then you act well. The Spirit of God who acts upon you is the helper of those who act. The name 'helper' indicates that you also do something." In the first part of the statement he indicates that man's action is not taken away by the movement of the Holy Spirit, because the will, which is directed to aspire to good, is of nature. But when he directly adds that from the word "help" it can be inferred that we also do something, we must not so understand it as if something were to be attributed to each of us separately. But in order not to encourage indolence in us, he connects God's action with our own in these words: "To will is of nature, but to will aright is of grace." Therefore he had said a little earlier, "Unless God helps, we shall be able neither to conquer nor even to fight."


Hence it appears that God's grace, as this word is understood in discussing regeneration, is the rule of the Spirit to direct and regulate man's will. The Spirit cannot regulate without correcting, without reforming, without renewing. For this reason we say that the beginning of our regeneration is to wipe out what is ours. Likewise, he cannot carry out these functions without moving, acting, impelling, bearing, keeping. Hence we are right in saying that all the actions that arise from grace are wholly his. Meanwhile, we do not deny that what Augustine teaches is very true: "Grace does not destroy the will but rather restores it." The two ideas are in substantial agreement: the will of man is said to be restored when, with its corruption and depravity corrected, it is directed to the true rule of righteousness. At the same time a new will is said to be created in man, because the natural will has become so vitiated and corrupted that he considers it necessary to put a new nature within.

Nothing now prevents us from saying that we ourselves are fitly doing what God's Spirit is doing in us, even if our will contributes nothing of itself distinct from his grace. Therefore we must keep in mind what we have elsewhere cited from Augustine: in vain, people busy themselves with finding any good of man's own in his will. For any mixture of the power of free will that men strive to mingle with God's grace is nothing but a corruption of grace. It is just as if one were to dilute wine with muddy, bitter water. But even if there is something good in the will, it comes from the pure prompting of the Spirit. Yet because we are by nature endowed with will, we are with good reason said to do those things the praise for which God rightly claims for himself: first, because whatever God out of his lovingkindness does in us is ours, provided we understand that it is not of our doing; secondly, because ours is the mind, ours the will, ours the striving, which he directs toward the good.

16. GENESIS 4:7

The other evidence that they rake together from here and there will not much bother even those of moderate understanding who have duly absorbed the refutations just given. Our opponents cite this statement from Genesis: "Its appetite will be under you, and you shall master it" [Genesis 4:7 p., cf. Vg.]. This they apply to sin, as if the Lord had promised Cain that the power of sin would not have the upper hand in his mind, if he willed to work toward conquering it! But we maintain that it is more in keeping with the order of the words that this verse should be applied to Abel. For there it is God's intention to reprove the wicked envy that Cain had conceived against his brother. God does this in two ways. First, Cain vainly planned a crime whereby he might excel his brother in the sight of God, before whom there is no honor except that of righteousness. Secondly, he was too ungrateful for the blessing that he had received of God, and could not bear his brother even though he was under his authority.

But lest we seem to espouse this interpretation because the other one is contrary to our view, well, let us concede to them that God was speaking here of sin. If this is so, then the Lord is either promising or commanding what he here declares. If he is commanding, we have already demonstrated that no proof of human capacity follows. If he is promising, where is the fulfillment of the promise when Cain yields to sin, which he ought to master? Will they say that there is a tacit condition included in the promise, as if it were said: "If you fight, you will achieve victory"? But who can stomach such evasions? For if this mastery refers to sin, no one can doubt that form of speech is imperative, defining not what we can do, but what we ought to do - even if it is beyond our power. However, both the matter itself and the principles of grammar require that Cain and Abel be compared, for the first-born brother would not have been subordinate to the younger had he not been worse through his own crime.

17. ROMANS 9:16; 1 CORINTHIANS 3:9

They also use the testimony of the apostle: "So it depends not upon him who wills or upon him who runs but upon God who shows mercy" [Romans 9:16]. From this they derive the notion that there is something in man's will and effort which, although feeble in itself, when aided by God's mercy does not fail to yield a favorable outcome. Now if they were soberly to weigh what matter Paul is discussing here, they would not misinterpret this statement so rashly. I know that they can cite Origen and Jerome in support of their exposition, I could in turn oppose Augustine to these. But what these hold makes no difference to us, provided we understand what Paul means. There he teaches that salvation has been prepared only for those whom the Lord deems worthy of his mercy, while ruin and death remain for all those whom He has not chosen. Paul had pointed out the destiny of the wicked by the example of Pharaoh [Romans 9:17]. He had also confirmed by the testimony of Moses the certainty of free election: "I shall have mercy on whom I shall have mercy" [Romans 9:15; Exodus 33:19]. He concludes, "It depends not upon him who wills or him who runs, but upon God who shows mercy." [Romans 9:16.] But if it were understood in this way - that will and effort are not sufficient because they are unequal to such a load - what Paul said would have been inappropriate. Away then with these subtleties! It depends not upon him who wills or him who runs; therefore there is some will, there is some running.

Paul's meaning is simpler: it is not the will; it is not the running that prepares the way to salvation for us. Only the mercy of the Lord is here. Paul speaks in this very way to Titus when he writes: "When the goodness and loving-kindness of God... appeared... not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own infinite mercy" [Titus 3:4-5 p.]. Some persons prattle that Paul hinted there was some will and some running because he denied that "it depends on him who wills or upon him who runs" [Romans 9:16 p.]. Yet not even they would grant me the right to reason along the same lines: that we do some good works, because Paul denies that we attain to God's goodness by virtue of the works that we have done. But if they detect a flaw in this argument, let them open their eyes and they will perceive that their own suffers from a like fallacy, it is a firm reason that Augustine relies on: "If therefore it were said that, 'It depends not upon him who wills or upon him who runs' [Romans 9:16] because willing or running alone is not sufficient, then one can turn the argument around: that it does not depend upon God's mercy, because it would not act alone." Since this second argument is absurd, Augustine rightly concludes: therefore this is said because man has no good will unless it be prepared by the Lord. Not that we ought not to will and to run; but because God accomplishes both in us.

Certain persons just as ignorantly twist that saying of Paul's: "We are God's co-workers" [1 Corinthians 3:9]. This is without a doubt restricted to ministers alone. Moreover they are called "co-workers" not because they bring anything of themselves, but because God uses their work after he has rendered them capable of it and has furnished them with the necessary gifts.


They bring forth Ecclesiasticus, a writer whose authority is known to be in doubt. Granting that we do not reject this author - although we have a perfect right to do so - what does Ecclesiasticus testify on behalf of free will? He says: "Immediately after man was created, God left him in the power of his own counsel. Commandments were given to him. If he kept the commandments, they would keep him as well. God has set... life and death, good and evil... before man. And whichever he chooses will be given him" [Ecclesiasticus. 15:14, 15, 16, 17 p.; 15. 14-18, Vg.]. Granted that man received at his creation the capacity to obtain life or death. What if we reply on the other side that he has lost this capacity? Surely it is not my intention to contradict Solomon, who declares "that God made man upright, but he has sought out many devices for himself" [Ecclesiastes 7:29 p.]. But because man, in his degeneration, caused the shipwreck both of himself and of all his possessions, whatever is attributed to the original creation does not necessarily apply forthwith to his corrupt and degenerate nature. Therefore I am answering not only my opponents but also Ecclesiasticus himself, whoever he may be: If you wish to teach man to seek in himself the capacity to acquire salvation, we do not esteem your authority so highly that it may in the slightest degree raise any prejudice against the undoubted Word of God. But suppose you strive simply to repress the evil inclination of the flesh, which tries vainly to defend itself by transferring its vices to God, and for this reason you answer that uprightness was implanted in man that thereby it might be clear that he is the cause of his own ruin. I willingly assent to this, provided you and I agree that man has now been deprived through his own fault of those adornments with which the Lord in the beginning arrayed him. Thus let us alike confess that man now needs a physician, not an advocate.

19. LUKE 10:30

They have nothing more constantly on their lips than Christ's parable of the traveler, whom thieves cast down half alive on the road [Luke 20:30]. I know that almost all writers commonly teach that the calamity of the human race is represented in the person of the traveler. From this our opponents take the argument that man is not so disfigured by the robbery of sin and the devil as not to retain some vestiges of his former good, inasmuch as he is said to have been left "half alive." For unless some portion of right reason and will remained, how could there be a "half life"?

First, suppose I do not want to accept their allegory. What, pray, will they do? For no doubt the fathers devised this interpretation without regard to the true meaning of the Lord's words. Allegories ought not to go beyond the limits set by the rule of Scripture, let alone suffice as the foundation for any doctrines. And I do not lack reasons, if I so please, to uproot this falsehood. The Word of God does not leave a "half life" to man, but it teaches that he has utterly died as far as the blessed life is concerned. Paul does not call the saints "half alive" when he speaks of our redemption, "Even when we were dead ... he made us alive" [Ephesians 2:5]. He does not call upon the half alive to receive the illumination of Christ, but those who are asleep and buried [Ephesians 5:14]. In the same way the Lord himself says, "The hour has come when the dead rise again at his voice" [John 5:25 p.]. How shameless of them to oppose a slight allusion to so many clear statements!

Yet, suppose this allegory of theirs serves as a sure testimony, what can they nevertheless wrest from us? Man is half alive, they say; therefore he has something safe. Of course he has a mind capable of understanding, even if it may not penetrate to heavenly and spiritual wisdom. He has some judgment of honesty. He has some awareness of divinity, even though he may not attain a true knowledge of God. But what do these qualities amount to? Surely they cannot make out that we are to abandon Augustine's view, approved by the common consent of the schools: the free goods upon which salvation depends were taken away from man after the Fall, while the natural endowments were corrupted and defiled.

Therefore let us hold this as an undoubted truth which no siege engines can shake: the mind of man has been so completely estranged from God's righteousness that it conceives, desires, and undertakes, only that which is impious, perverted, foul, impure, and infamous. The heart is so steeped in the poison of sin, that it can breathe out nothing but a loathsome stench. But if some men occasionally make a show of good, their minds nevertheless ever remain enveloped in hypocrisy and deceitful craft, and their hearts bound by inner perversity.

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