Man's Will- Free Yet Bound
by Walter J. Chantry
For more than fifteen hundred
years the Church has engaged in a heated debate over the freedom of
man's will. The major issues came to general attention in the early
fifth century when Augustine and Pelagius did battle on the subject.
Through medieval times the nature of man's freedom received a great
deal of attention. As they studied the Scriptures, Bernard and Anselm
made significant contributions to the doctrine of the human will. In
the sixteenth century the freedom or bondage of the will was one of
the chief issues dividing Reformers and Roman Catholics. To the mind
of Martin Luther, it was the key to his dispute with Rome. In
the seventeenth century the nature of man's freedom was at the heart
of the debate between Arminians and Calvinists. The conflict surfaced
again in the eighteenth century during the Great Awakening. Finney's
approach to revival in the nineteenth century led the church astray
through a misunderstanding of the human will. So too the nature of man's
will continues to bring intense disagreement between Reformed and Fundamentalist
A proper understanding of the content of the gospel and the use of GOD-honouring
methods in evangelism are dependent on one's grasp of this issue.
Some theologians, both Arminian and Calvinistic, have been quite lucid
in their discussions concerning man's will. Others, for example, Jonathan
Edwards, have soared into the lofty clouds of philosophy where many
a believer faints in the thin air of difficult logic and complex thought.
But none is so refreshingly clear as our holy LORD. His instruction
on the subject is laced with vivid illustrations to assist our groping
Matthew 12.33-37 says, 'Either make the tree good, and his fruit
good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the
tree is known by his fruit. O generation of vipers, how can ye, being
evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth
speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth
forth good things; and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth
forth evil things. But I say unto you, that every idle word that men
shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.
For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt
In this passage are three verbal windows
through which the light of Christ's lesson passes. Each presents a familiar
scene. (1) A tree that has fruit - v. 33. (2) A man who brings treasures
out of a chest - v. 35. (3) A stream that overflows from a fountain.
This last is rather more obscure than the first two, but it is suggested
by our LORD's choice of words in v. 34. The word 'abundance' suggests
superfluity or overflow.
I. Man has a will and that
will has a certain freedom. Our LORD clearly teaches that man has a
power of choice. It is important to begin here to disarm opponents of
all the foolish accusations that have been brought against the Biblical
doctrine of man's will. Every man has the ability to choose his own
words, to decide what his actions will be. We have a faculty of self-determination
in the sense that we select our own thoughts, words, and deeds. Man
is free to choose what he prefers, what he desires.
No one ties fruit on a tree's branches,
not even GOD. The tree bears its own fruit. Evil men sin voluntarily;
they take evil treasures out of their chests, that is, evil words and
deeds. Righteous men are holy by choice; they select good treasures,
that is, good words and works. The person who is speaking and acting
is completely responsible for his moral behaviour. This power of the
will is a vital part of human personality. It always exists in you and
me and in all to whom we witness or preach.
GOD never forces men to act against their
wills. By workings of outward providence or of inward grace, the LORD
may change men's minds, but He will not coerce a human being into thoughts,
words or actions. When GOD in His holy wrath sent the Israelites to
drive the Canaanites from their land, He also sent hornets against them.
There is a children's song which tells the story of these hornets stinging
the Canaanites, causing the pagans to flee the land. The chorus then
GOD never compels us to go, Oh no,
He never compels us to go;
GOD does not compel us to go 'gainst our will,
but He just makes us willing to go.
When Saul was converted, the LORD did not compel him to
edify the church instead of persecuting it. He added a new factor of
inward grace in his soul, consequently Paul changed his decision. GOD
may renew the will but He never coerces it.
The Westminster Confession is very careful
to assert the liberty of the human will. When it speaks of GOD's eternal
decrees, we are told, 'GOD from all eternity did . . . freely and unchangeably
ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is GOD the
author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures,
nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather
established.' When discussing Free Will, the Confession begins, 'GOD
hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither
forced, nor by any absolute necessity of nature determined, to good
or evil.' Neither by creation nor by subsequent acts of GOD are man's
decisions made for him; he is free to choose for himself.
This sort of freedom of the will is essential
to responsibility! Having a will is a necessary ingredient to being
morally accountable. This is clearly implied in our LORD's words in
verses 36 and 37: 'I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall
speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by
thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.'
A man can be condemned only because the words are his own. He was free
to bring them out of his treasure chest. They were the overflow of the
fountain of his own heart. They are the fruits of his own tree of nature.
No one imposed the words on his lips. He chose them. Society, companions,
parents cannot be blamed. Idle words are the product of the man's own
It is vital for every minister to appreciate
the importance of man's will. For in evangelism the will must be addressed.
In preaching the gospel we are not only to shine the light of truth
upon darkened minds. We are also to appeal to men's perverted wills
to choose Christ. Faith is as much an act of the will as it is of the
mind. When by the Spirit a mind understands essential truths, by the
same Spirit the will must trust Christ. Repentance is a selecting of
good and a refusing of evil. Volition is central to faith and repentance.
Indeed, in conversion, a man must make
a decision. We shy away from that term because in modern jargon a 'decision'
has come to be identified with an outward expression, such as raising
the hand or going forward to the front. While such external acts have
nothing to do with forgiveness of sins, the heart must make a decision
to be saved.
When Christ stood to cry 'If any man thirst,
let him come unto me and drink,' He was soliciting a willing choice
of Himself as satisfying drink for the soul. GOD urges all sinners to
come just because they may come. And it is our duty to inform
the sinner that he has a warrant, a right to choose Christ. Beyond this,
we must assure him that he has a positive duty to embrace the
The great guilt of sinners under the gospel
is that they will not come. Christ complained in John
5.40: 'Ye will not come to me that ye might have
life.' And to Jerusalem He sobbed, 'O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often
would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth
her chickens under her wings and ye would not !' There is in
the unregenerate hearer of the gospel an obstinate, wilful choice not
to come. Hence it is that in flaming fire Christ will come to take vengeance
on them that obey not the gospel [2 Thess 1.8]. In the
free exercise of their uncoerced wills men have rejected the Son of
In speaking of responsibility we have
implied nothing regarding ability, as will be seen below. But the point
is that men have wills which must be addressed as powerfully and directly
as their minds and emotions in gospel preaching. Men must be confronted
with their responsibility. 'This is the work of GOD, that ye believe
into Him whom He hath sent' [John 6.29].
II. Man's Will is not a Sovereign
Faculty. Although man does have a will, it is neither independent
of all influences nor supreme over all other parts of his personality.
This is the next point to be seen in our LORD's teaching.
Pelagians, Roman Catholics, Arminians
and Finneyites have all held one common view of the nature of man. They
suggest that the will of man is in some way neutral, that it exists
in a state of moral suspension. It is their understanding that with
equal ease the will can choose good or evil; it can receive or reject
Christ. With only degrees of difference and variety of explanation,
this is their common opinion. Pelagians have taught that the will is
neutral because man's heart is morally neutral. Arminians, on the other
hand, acknowledge the human heart to be evil. But they suggest that
prevenient grace has hung the will upon a 'sky hook' of neutrality from
which it can swing either to receive or to reject the gospel. The common
ground, however, is this idea of neutrality. The will, they tell us,
is disinterested. Ultimately this controls their entire view of conversion
and of sanctification.
It will be noted that our Master taught
that the human will is not free from the other faculties of the heart.
Far from the will reigning over a man, the will is determined by the
man's own character. It is not raised to a position of dominance over
the entire man.
Man is like a tree. His heart, not his
will alone, is the root. There is no possible way by which the will
can choose to produce fruit contrary to the character of the root. If
the root is bad, the tree is bound by its very nature to produce evil
fruit. Man is like a person standing alongside his treasure
chest. There is no possibility of bringing pure gold out of a box filled
only with rusty steel. The contents of the heart determine what words
and deeds may be brought out. Far from being neutral, the will must
reach into the heart for its choices. Every thought, word and deed will
partake of the nature of the treasure within. Man is
like a stream which cannot rise above its source. If the fountain is
polluted, the outflow will be evil. If the source be sweet, the stream
will not be bitter and cannot choose to be so.
These three illustrations alike contain
the same lesson. What a man is determines what he chooses. Choices of
the will always reveal the character of the heart, because the heart
determines the choices. Men are not sinners because they choose to sin;
they choose to sin because they are sinners. If this were not so, we
could never know a tree by its fruits, nor could we judge a man's character
by his acts.
In modern times we observe rockets fired
so that they escape from the earth's gravity. To accomplish this there
is a great complex of electrical wires all woven into one control centre,
called in the U.S. 'Mission Control.'
According to the Bible, the heart is the Mission Control of a man's
life. The heart is the motivational complex of a man, the basic disposition,
the entire bent of character, the moral inclination. The mind, emotions,
desires, and will are all wires which we observe; none is independent
but all are welded into a common circuit. If mission control is wired
for evil, the will cannot make the rockets of life travel on the path
of righteousness. The will cannot escape the direction of thoughts,
feelings, longings and habits to produce behaviour of an opposite moral
quality. 'Will' may be the button which launches the spacecraft. But
the launching button does not determine the direction. Direction is
dependent upon the complex wiring system.
If the will were able to make decisions
contrary to reason, and to the likes and desires of the heart, it would
be a monster. You would find yourself in a restaurant ordering all the
foods you detest. You would find yourself selecting the company you
loathe. But the will is not a monster. It cannot choose without consulting
your intelligence, reflecting your feelings, and taking account of your
desires. You are free to be yourself. The will cannot transform you
into someone else.
This is most profoundly true in the moral
and religious realms. When the mind is at war with GOD, denying His
truth; when the emotions hate Christ His Son; when the desires wish
GOD's law and gospel were exterminated from the earth; the will cannot
be in a position to choose Christ. If it were, a man would not be truly
free to be himself. Here is the tragic truth about man's
will. While free from outward coercion, it is in a state of bondage.
It is not in a stated neutrality. It is not a lever with which to move
a man's personality from sin to righteousness, from unbelief to faith.
This brings us to the third element in Christ's words.
III. Man's Will is in Bondage to
Sin. The chains which bind a man's will to sin do not result
from the actions of the Omnipotent GOD. The binding chains are the man's
own depraved faculties. The prison is his own nature.
Our LORD's rhetorical question in verse
34 brings this home with force: 'O generation of vipers, how can ye,
being evil, speak good things ?' Our wise LORD is suggesting that a
man must speak as he does because of what he is. To sinners He was saying
'You are unable to choose good words because you possess an evil heart.
If the tree is bad, if the treasure chest is filled with evil things
alone, if the fountain is bitter, your will cannot produce good words
[fruits, treasures, overflow].'
At this point there are very many scriptures
which attest to a man's bondage to sin by his own nature. To mention
but a few - Jeremiah 13.23: 'Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the
leopard his spots? Then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to
do evil;' John 6.44: 'No man can come to me, except the Father which
hath sent me draw him;' Romans 8.7: 'The carnal mind . . . is not subject
to the law of GOD, neither indeed can be.'
Pelagian, Arminian and modern Fundamentalist
support for the moral and spiritual freedom of the will usually centres
on one point. We have admitted that man has a responsible freedom. He
is free to be himself. He is held accountable for his words and deeds,
especially for his receiving or rejecting Christ. On all of this we
agree. They use this toehold to argue that the will is not in bondage
to sin but has the power of contrary choice. It can do either good or
evil, at least when confronted with the gospel. They insist that the
responsibility of the will to choose Christ implies ability of the will
to choose Christ.
There is no scriptural defence of this
belief, none that I have ever seen in print. The argument is completely
philosophical. It runs as follows: If a man cannot do good, it would
be unjust to punish him as evil. Furthermore, if a sinner cannot repent,
it would be foolish to command all men everywhere to repent. GOD is
not foolish and He has commanded repentance. Therefore men are able
We can only reply that those who applaud
the powers of the will with such arguments have not read the Bible very
carefully. To maintain their philosophical premises they will have to
argue with Christ their LORD. For our Prophet tells us in verses 36
and 37 of our text that in the day of judgment men will be held responsible
for their evil words. Yet in verse 34 our Teacher tells the very same
men that they cannot speak good words because they are bound by their
Lazarus in his tomb had no ability to
respond when our LORD commanded, 'Come forth.' The man who had been
impotent for 38 years had no native ability to obey when Jesus commanded
him to take up his bed and walk. Nor have modern sinners ability to
believe when we preach. 'This is his commandment, that we believe on
the name of his Son Jesus Christ' [I John 3.23].
When a sinner refuses to come to Christ,
he is guilty because he has made a free choice. It reflects his own
state of mind, feeling and attitude toward GOD and His Son. He has acted
voluntarily without coercion. It is his decision. But the poor sinner,
dead in trespasses and sins, could not do otherwise, being evil. It
is not necessary for him to have a neutral will, or the ability to do
both good and evil, for his action to be held accountable before the
Judge of all hearts.
Anselm is very helpful on this matter.
This medieval theologian points out that if ability to sin is necessary
to true liberty or responsibility, then GOD is neither free nor praiseworthy.
For the scriptures teach us that GOD cannot lie. Similarly, saints in
glory will be neither free nor responsible; for in eternity the LORD's
people have confirmed righteousness. Anselm goes on to show the Biblical
emphasis of freedom. True liberty rests in the ability to do good whereas
he that does sin is the slave of sin. If true liberty rests in
the ability to do good in GOD's sight, then the highest liberty rests
in the inability to do otherwise. This highest freedom belongs to the
sons of GOD in glory. How Biblical were Anselm's insights!
No doubt Anselm's thinking has influenced
the Westminster Confession's wording in the chapter 'Of Free Will.'
For it says that Adam 'had freedom and power to will and to do that
which is good and wellpleasing to GOD.' Yet this freedom was mutable,
subject to change. Man could and did lose his liberty in the sense of
being able to do good. This is not the same as a man's liberty to be
himself. 'Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all
ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as
a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin,
is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or prepare himself
Bernard was very near the truth when he
wrote of our condition in Adam: 'The soul, in some strange and evil
way, is held under this kind of voluntary, yet sadly free necessity,
both bond and free; bond in respect of necessity, free in respect of
will: and what is still more strange, and still more miserable, it is
guilty because free, and enslaved because guilty, and therefore enslaved
We have seen that man is free to be himself
and therefore is enslaved to sin by a wicked heart. And this brings
us to the most profound truth regarding the salvation of souls. It is
crucial to our preaching. It is vital to saving impressions in our hearers.
IV. Man's Will is not his Hope.
Our LORD has taught that the tree must be made good. Man must be
renewed in his entire character. He must have a new heart to bring forth
good fruit; the will cannot make the tree good; it may only exercise
liberty to be what the tree already is. The will cannot reload the treasure
chest with a new kind of goods; it may only freely bring forth what
is there. The will cannot cleanse the fountainhead; it may overflow
only with the waters available in the soul.
Any gospel preaching that relies upon
an act of the human will for the conversion of sinners has missed the
mark. Any sinner who supposes that his will has the strength to do any
good accompanying salvation is greatly deluded and far from the kingdom.
We are cast back upon the regenerating work of the Spirit of the living
GOD to make the tree good. Unless GOD does something in the sinner,
unless GOD creates a clean heart and renews a right spirit within man,
there is no hope of a saving change.
While we address the wills of
men in gospel preaching, they are wills bound in the grave clothes of
an evil heart. But as we speak, and the LORD owns His word, sinners
are quickened to life by divine power. His people are made willing in
the day of His power [Psa 110.3]. All who are adopted as sons of GOD
were 'born not of the will of man, but of GOD.' [John 1. 13] We stand
to preach with no power to make the tree good. The 'trees' before us
cannot make themselves good, so no gimmicks or policies of men can persuade
them to make the change. But our glorious GOD, by inward, secret, transforming
power, can make the tree good, the treasures good, the fountain good.
Thus all glory be to GOD and to the Lamb! Salvation is of the LORD!
“ This article reproduced by permission from THE
BANNER OF TRUTH magazine, Issue 140, May 1975.”