The Unregenerate Will: Self-Determined But Not Free

Coercion vs. Necessity
by John Hendryx


Those who believe in the freedom of the will, that is, the moral ability of unregenerate men to believe the gospel apart from a supernatural work of grace in the heart, are being excessive in their praise of human powers. The danger of this view (aside from being unbiblical) consists in the subtle boasting within us that believe what makes us to differ from other men is not the grace of God but the liberty of our natures and wills over against others who were not so wise or spiritually softened in heart so as to believe. If I can really soften my own heart by my own will (i.e. soften my naturally hardened will by my own will’), then it would appear that our will is what makes us to differ from others...that our will, not God is what makes our heart of stone into a heart of flesh. But what is it that ultimately saves us? The grace of God or the will of the natural man? If you say "both" the same problem still exists for why did one man make better use of the grace given to him that the other. Both had the same grace (in this view) so it was something beyond grace (some confidence in the flesh) which would make one person to differ with others in their response to the gospel.


Revelation, however, teaches us that man has fallen into a desperate and ruined condition from which he is impotent to arise by his own capacity. His desires are corrupted so as to love darkness and hate the light and cannot (and will not) love Christ in his natural fallen state. The bondage of the will is a concept so prevalent in both Old and New Testament Scriptures that it is crazy that so many evangelicals embrace the ‘freedom of the will’ as it were a biblical axiom.  That all men have free wills is such a widely held assumption among Christian groups and that anyone who doesn’t believe the evangelical consensus is an obvious heretic or wildly misunderstand Christianity. The Bible is actually read by most people with this assumption in the background, but if you ask persons to produce direct biblical evidence to prove the existence of free will it is not forthcoming. So puzzling has the prevalent belief in free will been to me that I have taken it upon myself to look more deeply into the question.    My discovery is that the simple fact of the matter is, all evangelicals, without exception, really believe in the truth that man has lost his free will and is in bondage to sin.  This I will prove below.


If you were to ask any evangelical, Arminian or Calvinist, (1) whether the Holy Spirit has any role at all in bringing one to faith in Christ, then all would gladly be obliged to answer in the affirmative. Similarly all evangelicals believe that (2) apart from any action of the Holy Spirit, that no man has the natural capacity/desire to convert himself to Jesus Christ.  Left to our unregenerate nature the will is held captive to sin until Christ sets it free. Take note: This is ALL that is meant when we confess that man has no free will.  It is not a discussion about coercion by some outside force, for none of us believes that, rather it is about necessity due to our nature. The two above assertions themselves should be totally sufficient, for all time, to settle the issue, once and for all, among Christians as to whether man has a free will.  So the contention between evangelicals is not the nature of the will, for we have already determined above that man has no free will; the issue, rather, where evangelicals truly differ is the nature of God’s grace (Is it monergistic or synergistic?). But I have discussed that issue elsewhere.


So I want to get back to the issue of “free will” because it is VERY important that this begin to become clear in all our minds and that we have unity as evangelicals on this subject. Up to this point many church traditions have made the belief in fallen man’s free will one that is beyond challenge. But if you agreed with assertions 1 & 2 above it is time to recognize some distinctions and conclude this matter among us.


When the concensus of evangelicals speak of ‘free will’ or that choice is ‘free’ it seems to convey the idea that the will is autonomous, meaning that whatever a person chooses to do, it is done, not out of necessity, but is able to choose otherwise.  Now if asserting that free will simply means that it is opposed to all coercion or puppetry, then we openly acknowledge and affirm with them that the will or choice is free. We have no objection to saying that our choices, as fallen creatures, are free in the sense that it is not subject to being coerced forcibly by some external power, but instead moves according to what it wants voluntarily. Although many evangelicals may speak about “free will” as the ability to do otherwise, but this is not how Scripture uses the term, and thus we should be able to finally conclude the endless debates over the will that have continued over the centuries.  A few Scriptural examples will suffice for now to further prove my point.  Notice that, of those who are opposed to the gospel, the Apostle said,

“…if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.”

Now if we are held captive to do someone else’s will then it is clear that our will is not free, and according to the above passage, freedom comes to an individual only when God's grants it.  Likewise when Jesus promises freedom to the captives to sin, He says, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36)  Clearly since the will has been subdued by the corruptions with which it has fallen, unregenerate man has a total lack of freedom.  This passage reveals to us that the gift of grace is itself not an attribute of our unregenerate natures. Furthermore Paul describes mankind’s state as prisoners who are bound with chains of sin, that is, until we are set free by the Holy Spirit.  Therefore we must conclude that those who continue to assert that man has free choice use a different expression than the Holy Spirit. For what Christian would dare to claim that we serve the righteousness of God by free choice which is innate within us, but not through the Holy Spirit which is given to us. For the Scripture declares that “no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3). 

Augustine once said that the will is always free [self-determined], but it is not always good. It is important here that we pay careful attention and remember this because we must bring clarity as to what is meant by “free will” because many persons are simply confusing coercion with necessity. In his very helpful book, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will, John Calvin stated that there are four expressions regarding the will which differ from one another:


“namely that the will is free, bound, self-determined, or coerced. People generally understand a free will to be one which has in its power to choose good or evil [many evangelicals believe this]…[But] There can be no such thing as a coerced will, since the two ideas are contradictory. But our responsibility as teachers is to say what it means, so that it may be understood what coercion is.  Therefore we describe [as coerced] the will which does not incline this way or that of its own accord or by an internal movement of decision, but is forcibly driven by an external impulse. We say that it is self-determined when of itself it directs itself in the direction in which it is led, when it is not taken by force or dragged unwillingly.  A bound will, finally, is one which because of its corruptness is held captive under the authority of its evil desires, so that it can choose nothing but evil, even if it does so of its own accord and gladly, without being driven by any external impulse.  

According to these definitions we allow that man has choice and that it is self-determined, so that if he does anything evil, it should be imputed to him and to his own voluntary choosing.  We do away with coercion and force, because this contradicts the nature of the will and cannot coexist with it.  We deny that choice is free, because through man’s innate wickedness it is of necessity driven to what is evil and cannot seek anything but evil.  And from this it is possible to deduce what a great difference there is between necessity and coercion.  For we do not say that man is dragged unwillingly into sinning, but that because his will is corrupt he is held captive under the yoke of sin and therefore of necessity will in an evil way.  For where there is bondage, there is necessity.  But it makes a great difference whether the bondage is voluntary or coerced.  We locate the necessity to sin precisely in corruption of the will, from which follows that it is self-determined. (John Calvin, BLW pp 69, 70)


The difference between coercion and necessity is really where the misunderstandings among evangelicals have come about.  But even after all this there is still confusion.  Lets attempt to end it here.  Some erroneously say that there can be no sin where there is necessity – these are the ones who defend free choice against the grace of God.  The holdouts should recognize that this argument does not hold water because God Himself is good of necessity and we praise Him for the fact that He can only be good. Our opponents would like us to believe that being voluntary is wholly inconsistent with necessity but here we have shown that the two are combined together in the nature of God and his goodness.  And consider that you yourself are longing for the Day when we will be transformed into our resurrected bodies in glory as we stand upon the earth.  At that time there will be no more tears, death or sin. So then we will be sinless of necessity because of our nature. 


Others ask, if men are not free then why does God ask of them what they cannot deliver.  Isn’t this unjust?  Well if we borrow $1 million and squander it in riotous living and cannot repay, does our inability alleviate us of the responsibility? The fact is that we are debtors and that God owes us nothing since we willfully disobey Him. The Law’s work is to thoroughly empty all misplaced confidence in ourselves which alone makes room for the grace of God.  God’s commands do not take into consideration our natural strength for in the gospel itself He gives what He commands – and does so for the purpose of revealing that by ourselves we are helpless. (Augustine).  Whenever we proclaim the word of the gospel to men, it is without question that when someone hears so as to believe, it is a gift wrought by God in him.   It is God’s work to fulfill through grace what He commands by the Law (Calvin).

In the Old Testament sometimes God would discipline Israel by telling them their crops would fail even though they labored to sow seed. This is proof that all that we do in this world such as planting crops requires the prior blessing of God if it is to be fruitful.  Similarly Paul uses an agricultural metaphor when speaking of casting the seed of the gospel.  He says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” This simply means that people need to hear the gospel in order to be saved, but we can preach till we a blue in the face and nothing will take root unless the Holy Spirit sovereignly applies that word to the heart that one might hear.  Even though it is common knowledge among Christians that they are saved by grace, why is it in our moralizing crusades do we easily fall into the trap of believing ourselves better or more moral than the average pagan? The two are mutually exclusive. The sins of both left and right, of Christian and Pagan, stem from the belief in the autonomy of man, or quite simply, the belief in free will, that we can do any good apart from the prior blessing of God. Otherwise couldn’t we say, God I am so glad I am not like other men ... when you distributed grace equally among men, I took hold of it and not others. I had the wisdom to believe but my neighbor did not.”   Away with such boasting, which the cause of so much self-righteousness among Christians.  How easy it is to fall into the trap of believing that it was something other than the grace of Christ that God is pleased by in us.   Where is the sufficiency of the cross in this?   To believe that faith is self-produced, innately present in our unregenerate fallen nature is a deeply flawed unbiblical theology. And finally if all men receive equal grace to choose Christ, then what need of there is prayer?  If everyone already has as much grace as they are going to get prior to salvation, then what more can God do to help them?  It would make prayer for the salvation of others irrelevant and useless since such a theology must lead one to conclude that man has to make has own decision apart from the work of the Spirit.

Because all Christians believe in the necessity of the work of the Holy Spirit in coming to faith in Christ, we can only conclude than man has no free will, until Christ sends His Spirit to set us free.  If you want to define the will differently then do so recognizing that when we teach that man has no free will, all we mean is that, due to a corruption of nature, man is in bondage to sin and cannot and will not help himself out of it. Let me conclude this discussion with a quote from the Council of Orange (529 AD). “…if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10).”




Detailed Discussion of this subject in The Bondage and Liberation of the Will by John Calvin