by Ernest C Reisinger
IN the introduction I emphasized the importance of our subject and pointed out that the subject of the human will is not a new issue, but, as history teaches us, it has been a heated debate for centuries and was one of the chief issues that divided the Reformed and Roman Catholic theologians.
The question of the freedom of the will, or the power of the human will to obey God and to do that which is spiritually good, is inseparably connected to man’s sin and misery (total inability). It is also necessary to know what ability man lost by the fall and what he possessed after the fall.
An important question, then. is whether man can now, in the same way in which he separated himself from God, return to God by his own strength and ability? Can man, by his own will and in his fallen condition, accept the grace that is offered him by God, and recover himself to the position which has been lost by sin? ~n other words, can the will of man be the cause for men to do good or evil?
The Pelagian reply to this question is that so much grace is given by God and left by nature, to all men, that they can in and of themselves return to God and obey Him. The Holy Scriptures, however, teach us no such thing. Rather, the Scriptures clearly teach that no work acceptable and pleasing to God can be performed by anyone without the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, all actions of the will, both good and bad, are performed freely and in no way coerced.
To put it another way, the Bible teaches that man, since the fall, in his natural corrupt state, has lost all ability of the will to do any spiritual good accompanying salvation and is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself.
The State of Innocence or The State of Creation
How great was the liberty of the will before the fall, that is, as God made Adam? The testimony of Scripture answers this question: “Truly, this only have I found: that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes” (Eccl. 7:29).
In this state of innocence, Adam had a mind enlightened with the perfect knowledge of God and a will yielding entire obedience to God by its own voluntary act and inclination. Yet this will was not so confirmed in this knowledge and obedience that it might not fall by its own free exercise, if the appearance of any good were presented for the purpose of deceiving and effecting a fall. In other words, the will of man was free to choose good and evil. It might continue to stand in good, being preserved by God; or it might also incline and fall over to evil, if forsaken by God. Adam had a copy of God’s law written on his heart. As a key is fitted to all the wards of a lock and can open it, so Adam had power suited to all God’s commandments and could obey them perfectly.
Pelagianism, Arminianism, Roman Catholicism, and present day Finneyism all have this one thing in common: they all teach man’s will is neutral—that it is still free to choose either good or evil. But the Scriptures teach that by his fall into a state of sin, man has lost all ability of will for any spiritual good accompanying salvation. Therefore, as a natural man, altogether averse to good and dead in sin, he is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself or to prepare himself for salvation.
The Calvinist does not believe that the will is neutral, but rather, what the Bible teaches: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). Paul, Augustine, and Calvin have as their starting point the fact that all mankind sinned in Adam and that all men, therefore, are “without excuse” (Rom. 2:1).
This doctrine of total inability, which declares that men are dead in sin and are therefore unable to choose any good leading to salvation, does not teach (1) that all men are equally bad, (2) that any man is as bad as he could be, (3) that anyone is entirely destitute of virtue, (4) that human nature is evil in itself, (5) that man’s spirit is inactive, or (6) that the body is dead.
It does teach, however, that fallen man, while unable to perform what is good, is never compelled to sin. Instead, he does so by his own depraved will—he wills to sin.
The State of Nature or The State of Degeneration
In his natural corrupt state, man freely chooses evil, without any compulsion or constraint upon his will. Indeed
he cannot do otherwise, being under the bondage of sin. When Adam sinned, he and all his posterity fell into this state of nature and were corrupted. He will stay in this state unless he is recovered by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is where you are if you have not been converted (“born again”).
The biblical description of this state of nature is as follows:
The sinfulness of man’s natural state: “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5).
The misery of man's natural state: “We.. .were by nature children of wrath, just as the others” (Eph. 2:3).
Man’s utter inability to recover himself “For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44).
In this unregenerate, fallen state, man has no ability to do anything spiritually good. Man is a slave; he is in Satan’s prison house and does not have the key to get out. Second Timothy 2:24—26 says, “And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance , so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will” (emphasis mine).
In this unregenerate state, men are spiritually blind and cannot see, spiritually deaf and cannot hear, and what is worse, they are dead in trespasses and sins. But there is a God in heaven who can open blind eyes, who can unstop deaf ears, and, bless His holy name, who can and does raise the dead.
How does God influence the will of man? He presents objects or circumstances to the understanding, and through these, effectually moves and inclines the will. Therefore, although they choose that which God wills, they do it nevertheless from their own deliberation and choice and therefore act freely. So men may be said to act freely, not when they disregard every form of government and restraint, but rather when they act with deliberation and when the will chooses or rejects objects by its own free exercise, even though it may be excited and controlled by someone else (God).
If some of you think this is a little heavy, let me give you a little illustration that sets forth how God changes the “wilier.” I remember hearing an old country preacher pick his guitar and sing a kind of “hillbilly” song, and though he may not have understood it, that song clearly sets forth a great theological truth, that is, that God makes man willing. I call it:
The Hornet Song
When the Canaanites hardened their hearts against God,
And grieved Him because of their sin,
God sent along hornets to bring them to terms,
And to help His own people to win.
If a nest of live hornets were brought to this room,
And the creatures allowed to go free,
You would not need urging to make yourself scarce,
You’d want to get out, don’t you see!
They would not lay hold and by force of their strength,
Throw you out of the window, oh, no!
They would not compel you to go against your will,
But they would just make you willing to go.
When Jonah was sent to the work of the Lord,
The outlook was not very bright.
He never had done such a hard thing before,
So he backed and ran off from the fight.
Now, the Lord sent a gteat fish to swallow him up,
The story I am sure you all know.
God did not compel him to go against his will,
But He just made him willing to go.
God does not compel us to go, oh, no!
He never compels us to go.
God does not compel us to go against our will,
But He just makes us willing to go.
This song is teaching the truth found in the Psalms: “Blessed is the man You choose, and cause to approach You, that he may dwell in Your courts” (65:4); “Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power” (110:3 KJV).
What can the will do in the state of sin with reference to good? Some strength still remains in the unregenerate to do some civil good, such as, exercising justice and temperance. He can do acts of mercy and charity. He can abstain from theft and homicide. Some heathens have some virtue; however, they cannot do spiritual or supernatural good—pleasing and acceptable to God. Even “the plowing of the wicked [is] sin” (Prov. 2 1:4). The unregenerate has no strength for heavenly things—either in his intellect or will—from which the free will arises.
The unregenerate cannot do any spiritual good because he is spiritually dead: he must first be made alive by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit.
This state of depravity is proof of how we are born into this world since the fall. Man is not born neutral. He is born with a sinful nature. Parents should have no difficulty in believing that children are born with something other than a neutral nature. Parents do not find it necessary to teach their little children to lie. They soon learn what the Bible has to say about the inclinations with which their children are born. “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies” (Ps. 58:3). Parents do not have to teach their children to get angry—we have all seen children get very angry before they can talk or walk—and according to our Lord’s teaching, anger is the mother of murder. (Matt. 5:21—22.)
Children are not sinners because they sin; they sin because they are born sinners—it is in their nature. This underscores the fact that the will, in this state, can only act according to its nature. It is true they are free but only free to act according to their nature. We are not free to fly because we do not have the nature of a bird. A sheep will not eat garbage like a hog. Why? Not because the sheep does not have a mouth and teeth but because of its nature. A hog will not eat grass like a sheep for the same reason: not because it is not free, but because it is free only to act according to its nature. So it is with the freedom of the will in the state of depravity—men are only free to act according to their nature.
Our Lord makes this point very clear when He states that a tree is known by its fruit (Matt. 12:33—37). Our Lord’s illustration of free will here will assist us in understanding a very important but controversial subject. (Walter Chantry of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, has an excellent exposition of this passage entitled Mans Will Free—yet Bound.)
We also see this truth in the most pessimistic verse in all the Bible in which Jesus says to a crowd who are in the state of nature: “But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.”(John 5:40) “You are not willing”—this is the will in the state of nature.
The unwilling in this state must be made willing by a mighty power outside themselves—by the power of the Holy Spirit. Man’s will is not his hope. “Who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13).
The Spirit of God declares that:
- every imagination of man’s heart from infancy is evil (Gen. 6:5; 8:2 1)
- there is none righteous, none that understands, none that seeks after God (Ps. 14:3; Rom 3:10—11)
- all are useless, corrupt, void of the fear of God, full of fraud, bitterness, and all kinds of iniquity, and have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3)
- the carnal mind is enmity against God and does not even leave us the power of thinking a good thought (Rom. 8:7; 2 Cor. 3:5)
Therefore, we maintain with Augustine that man, by making a bad use of free will, lost both himself and it. Since the will is overcome by the corruption into which it fell, man’s fallen, depraved will has no real liberty. No will is free which is subject to lusts which conquer and enchain it.
In like manner, God declares that it is His own work to renew the heart (Ps. 51:10), out of stone to make it flesh (Ezek. 11:19), to write His law on the heart and put it in the inward parts (Jer. 3 1:33), to make us to walk in His precepts (Ezek. 11:20), to give both good will and the results of it (Phil. 2:13), to put the fear of His name into our hearts, that we may never withdraw from it (Jer. 32:39), and in fine, to finish the work which He has begun in us until the day of Christ (Phil. 1:6).
From this we conclude, again with Augustine, that:
- the children of God are actuated by His Spirit to do whatever is to be done
- they are drawn by Him, out of an unwilling state to be made willing
- since the fall it is owing only to the grace of God that man draws near to Him
- it is owing only to the same grace that God does not withdraw or recede from him
- we know that no good thing which is our own can be found in our will
- by the magnitude of the first sin, we lost the freedom of the will to believe in God and live holy lives
- therefore “it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs”—not because we ought not to will and to run, but because God effects both the willing and the running.
A Calvinist does not believe that God’s decision to save man by a decree leaves man passive or inert. Rather, the very opposite takes place! The covenant of grace does not kill man—it does not regard him as a tin can or a piece of wood or a robot. It takes possession of the man, it lays hold of his whole being, with all his faculties, and his power of soul and body—for time and eternity.
God’s sovereign grace does not annihilate man’s will: it overcomes his unwillingness. It does not destroy his will but frees it from sin. It does not stifle or obliterate his conscience but sets it free from darkness. Grace regenerates and re-creates man in his entirety, and in renewing him, causes him to love and consecrate himself to God freely.
The State of Grace or The State of Regeneration
In this state the person is both a saint and a sinner at the same time. In this third state the free power of choice belongs to a man as a regenerate person, but his will is not yet perfected as it will be in the glorified state.
In this state of grace, the will no longer uses its liberty openly for doing that which is evil, as it did before regeneration. Now the will chooses both—partly the good and partly the evil.
In this state of regeneration, there is freedom from the love of sin and from the dominion of sin. "Sin shall not have dominion over you" (Rom. 6:14). Our Lord said, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32).
Zacharias Ursinus, in his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, gives us an excellent exposition on the will of man in the state of grace:
The regenerate man does that which is good, because the Holy Spirit, by his special grace, has renovated the nature of man through the Word of God—has kindled new light and knowledge in the understanding, and has awakened in the heart and will such new desires and inclinations, as are in harmony with the divine law; and because the Holy Spirit effectually inclines the will to do those things which are in accordance with this knowledge, and with these desires and inclinations. It is in this way that the will recovers both the power of willing that which is acceptable to God, and the use of this power, so that it commences to obey God according to these declarations of his word: “The Lord thy God will circumcise thy heart.” “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh.” “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin.” (Deut. 30:6, Exod. 36:26, 2 Cor. 3:17, 1 John 3:9) The reasons, on account of which the will in this third degree chooses and does in part both the good and the evil, are the following: 1. Because the mind and will of those who are regenerated, are not fully perfectly renewed in this life. There are many remains of depravity which cleave to the best of men, as long as they continue in the flesh, so that the works which they perform are imperfect, and defiled with sin. “I know that in me, (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing.” (Rom. 7:18) 2. Because those who are regenerated are not always governed by the Holy Spirit; but are sometimes forsaken of God for a season, that he may thus either try, or humble them. Yet, although they are thus left to themselves for a time, they do not finally perish, for God, in his own time and way, calls them to repentance. “Take not thy Holy Spirit from me.” “0 Lord, why hast thou made us to err from thy ways, and hardened our heart from thy fear. Return, for thy servant’s sake.” (Ps. 5 1:13, Isa. 63:17) In short, after regeneration, there is a proneness to choose partly the good, and partly the evil. There is a proneness to the good, because the mind and will being illuminated and changed, begin, in some measure, to be turned to the good, and to commence new obedience. There is a proneness to the evil, because the saints are only imperfectly renewed in this life—retain many infirmities and evil desires, on account of original sin, which still cleaves to them. Hence the good works which they perform are not perfectly good.3
Therefore, in this state of grace, the regenerated believer freely chooses good, yet that good is mixed with evil because of his remaining sin. Using his freedom to perfectly choose good will only come under the fourth state.
The State of Glorification or The State of Perfect Regeneration
In this state of perfect and glorious liberty, the will of man will be perfectly restored and perfectly regenerated. Another quote from Ursinus will be helpful.
In this state, the will of man will be free to choose only the good, and not the evil. This will be the highest degree, or the perfect liberty of the human will, when we shall obey God fully and forever. In this state we shall not only not sin, but we will abhor it above every thing else; yea, we shall then no longer be able to sin. In proof of this we may adduce the following reasons: First, the perfect knowledge of God will then shine in the mind, while there will be the strongest and most ardent desire of the will and heart to obey God; so that there will be no room left for ignorance or doubt, or the least contempt of God.
Secondly, in the life to come, the saints will never be forsaken, but will be constantly and forever ruled by the Holy Spirit, so that it will not be possible for them to deviate in the smallest respect from that which is right. Hence it is said: “They are as the angels of God in heaven.” “We shall be like him.” (Matt. 22:30, 1 John 3:3) The good angels are inclined only to that which is good, because they are good; just as the bad angels, on the other hand, are inclined to that which is evil, because they are evil. But we shall be like the good angels. Our condition will, therefore, be one of far greater excellence than that of Adam before the fall. Adam was, indeed, perfectly conformed to God; but he had the power to will both the good and the evil; and therefore, with all his gifts, he had a certain infirmity, viz: the possibility to fall from God, and to lose his gifts. He was changeably good. But we shall not be able to will any thing but the good. Just as the wicked are inclined and led to do evil only, because they are wicked; so we shall be inclined to that which is good, and love and choose it alone, because we shall be unchangeably good. We shall then be so fully established in righteousness and conformity to God, that it will not be possible for us to fall from him; yes, it will then be impossible for us to will any thing that is evil, because we shall be preserved by divine grace in that state of perfect liberty in which the will will choose the good only.
From these things which we have now said in relation to human freedom, it is manifestly a foul slander to say that we take away the liberty of the will. And although those who are renewed and glorified will not be able to will any thing but the good, after their glorification; yet their power of choice will then be free to a much greater extent than it now is; for God, also, cannot will any thing but the good, and yet he possesses perfect freedom of will. So on the other hand, we do not take away the power of choice from the ungodly, or such as are unregenerated, when we affirm that they are not able to will any thing but that which is evil; for they will and choose the evil freely—yea, most freely. Their will is inclined and carried with the greatest impetuosity, to evil only; because they continually retain in their hearts, hatred to God. Hence, all the works which they perform of an external moral character, are evil iii the sight of God, as we have already shown in our remarks upon the doctrine of sin.
There are six things related to this Eternal State:
Death: “For I know that You will bring me to death, and to the house appointed for all living” (Job 30:23).
The Difference between the righteous and the wicked in their death: “The wicked is banished in his wickedness, but the righteous has a refuge in his death” (Prov. 14:32).
The resurrection: “Do not marvel at this: for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life; and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:28—29).
The general judgment: “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And he will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed...’ [but] to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed...’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt. 25:31—34, 41, 46).
The kingdom of heaven: “Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world'” (Matt. 25:34).
Hell: "Then He will also say to those on the left hand, 'Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels'" (Matt. 25:41)
It can be seen that the Bible teaches that man has no ability to save himself, and indeed, has lost the power that Adam had to choose to do good. He is perfectly free to choose and act in accordance with his own nature, just as the glorified man will freely choose to please God in all things. For now men have no power to please God without having his nature radically changed by the Holy Spirit. Our methods and message of evangelism should be greatly impacted by this fact. It is all so vitally important to the Christian faith.