"free-will is a nonentity, a thing consisting of name alone"
- Martin Luther
"The will of man without the grace of God is not free at all, but is the permanent prisoner and bondslave of evil since it cannot turn itself to good."
- Martin Luther
"All the passages in the Holy Scriptures that mention assistance are they that do away with "free-will", and these are countless ... For grace is needed, and the help of grace is given, because "free-will" can do nothing."
- Martin Luther
"We are all sinners by nature, therefore we are held under the yoke of sin . But if the whole man is subject to the dominion of sin , surely the will , which is it's principal seat , must be bound with the closest of chains. And indeed if divine grace were preceded by any will of ours, Paul could not have said that,"it is God that worketh in us to will and to do ' (Phil. 2:13)
- John Calvin
"Before the fall, man had been created with a free will, so that, had he been willing, he might have kept the law; his nature was pure; the disease of sin had not yet reached him... But having desired to be as God, he died - and not he alone, but all his posterity. Since then in Adam all men are dead, no one can recall them to life, until the Spirit, which is God himself, raises them from the dead."
- Ulrich Zwingli
"Free will I have often heard of, but I have never seen it. I have always met with will, and plenty of it, but it has either been led captive by sin or held in the blessed bonds of grace."
- C. H. Spurgeon
Everything is gone if free-will is gone; the moral system is gone if free-will is gone; you cannot escape, except by materialism on the one hand or pantheism on the other. Hold hard, therefore, to the doctrine of free-will.
- A. A. Hodge
What? Huh? How does one account for the last quote since A. A. Hodge essentially has the same theological convictions as all the others listed above? He is not alone in this. There are quite a few Reformed brethren who have historically affirmed that man has a "free will" and use this as a common way of speaking. Below, in as few words as possible, I would like to explore the difference and then encourage you to use one or the other of these methods if you wish to speak consistently.
Below I would like to express what I personally think is a better way of expressing the condition of our will, and why.
After discussing, debating and praying through this issue for 10 years, I have decided to take the position that it is better to declare that fallen man has no free will because I believe this is the most faithful way of using the word "freedom" in light of the Bible's way of using the term. It also tends to lead to more fruitful discussions when we define the meaning up front. Some Reformed writers, like Hodge, tend to use philosophical and confessional language (describing man's condition as having a 'free will' to do as he likes according to his nature. But his nature is evil so, being led by sin, can only choose evil and is unable to choose good.). That's fine, but if you look closely, it turns out that the very thing he calls "freedom", the Bible calls "bondage" or "slavery to sin" (John 8:34). That is too odd to ignore, I think. Moreover, the Bible never uses the term 'free will' to describe unregenerate man. The Bible uses the term 'freedom' one way (i.e. freedom from sin) and these writers do another (freedom from coercion within the bounds of our nature). This is not to say that these writers are wrong in concept. Not at all. I actually agree completely with the concept and their theology, but differ only on usage of terms. I find "voluntary' to be more accurate than 'freedom' since we are not free from sin until Christ Himself gives " liberty to the captive[s]" (Luke 4:18). Thus the Bible declares that the greatest freedom is when we are free FROM sin and become slaves of righteousness (Rom 6:18) and "So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." (John 8:36) In Romans 6:22 we are called "slaves of God" but Paul says of this that "I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations." Indeed "slavery" to God is seen a a positive thing because it is who we originally were created to be, freed from all corruption, and as such, it is the greatest freedom of all. As Christians we have been set free the bondage to sin, and translated into the kingdom of light where we finally behold the truth, beauty and excellency of Christ for the first time, and have been given a new heart which believes in Him. As glorified saints we will be free from the presence of sin, death and suffering forever. True freedom indeed.
As for discussion about this issue, " I sometimes get the question: "God is sovereign, on that I have no doubt. But God's sovereignty doesn't rule out the fact that we make choices, right?"
My answer to this kind of question usually goes something like this: "The choices a fallen man makes are voluntary and self-determined, not coerced, but are in bondage and taken captive by sin, so they make evil choices of necessity, so they are not free. Free from coercion yes, but not free from necessity, due to a corruption of nature. Calvin said, "We do not say that fallen man is forced unwillingly into sinning, but rather that because his will is corrupt he is held captive under the yoke of sin (Rom 7:6; 2 Tim 2:26) and therefore sins of necessity." If someone says that "voluntary" means free, consider the following: If a man was in his own house bound to a chair with cords and handcuffs, but not in federal prison, would you say he was free because he was not in federal prison? I believe such a way of speaking is a bit forced, yet many of us do this when speaking about man's fallen condition.
So when discussing 'free will' with someone it is always useful to ask up from "free from what?" so that the parties all understand what actually is being discussed. We are free from outside coercion (on this we all agree), but are we free from the bondage to sin? Free from God's decree? Just because we are free from coersion does not mean we are free. There are other types of captivity that are just as deadly. I believe this questioning up front can undo a lot of misunderstandings.
As for God's sovereignty, we wholeheartedly affirm that God's predetermination and meticulous providence is "compatible" with voluntary choice. In light of Scripture, human choices are believed to be exercised voluntarily but the desires and circumstances that bring about these choices about occur through divine determinism (see Acts 2:23 & 4:27-28).
What practical application does this have? In a discussion with the average evangelical synergist or libertarian free-will theist, I often start by asking them if they believe man has a free will? They will always answer, "of course". Next I ask, in light of Scripture, can a person come to faith in Jesus Christ apart from grace?, or apart from any help of the Holy Spirit? If they are a Christian they will answer "no" which means that they have just contradicted themselves. If they cannot come to Christ apart from grace then they just contradicted their belief in libertarian free will. For if man had a libertarian free will why would he need grace? What is stopping him from coming to Christ? (see 1 Cor 2:14; John 6:65). You see, grace does away with free will altogether. This can lead to all kinds of fruitful discussion about the nature of grace since you have already established, with the libertarian, that you both reject free will. This also has profound implications on how we share the gospel.
So is it "free-will or free-grace?. The Bible says that men are born again, not of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:13); that it is not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that shows mercy (Rom 9:16); the work of faith is the operation of God according to the exceeding greatness of his power, who works in man both to will and to do of his own good pleasure." (Phil 2:13)
A lot of prayer and thought has gone into this issue for me but if my bretheren still choose to declare man has free will, I will know what they mean, and as such, we can still smile at one another, knowing that we are really saying the same thing while holding to our different ways of expression.