One of the most formative theological books I ever read is Luther’s De Servo Arbitrio or merely The Bondage of the Will. You may accuse Luther of barbaric arrogance, to which he would humbly admit, but you cannot fail to concede to the forcefulness of the argument he makes in this masterpiece.
The conversation concerning the freedom or bondage of the will has formidable thinkers on either side, and it is not my intention to exhaust their views, nor submit them. Not especially in a little over one thousand words of a blog. I intend to hopefully add my very uninfluential and unforceful voice to the discussion, for those who would care to lend me their ears and time, and may you pardon me for wasting your time if this article does not turn out to be as helpful for you as you had anticipated.
The reason Luther’s Arbitrio was very helpful to me is that I read it at a time I needed to clarify my doctrine; to ground my understanding of what I fundamentally believe to be biblical Christianity. This was five years ago.
The core question I pondered on, what I find fundamental to this debate is this: How free is a fallen man? That is; what is the nature of fallen man, and what is the definition of freedom. Without answering these questions biblically and adequately, I am afraid; the conversation will digress into absurd caricatures and characterizations that have no contribution to devotional purity or doctrinal clarity.
What is free will?
On this question what is free will, we are faced with two possibilities. One is that to be free is to do whatever we want, wherever we want, and however we want. This is libertarian freedom. It is freedom of indeterminacy and indifference, freedom with no restrictions. It is the unlimited power to choose A or B with equal inherent ability.
This view of freedom (of choice) presumes the will is morally neutral, without inclinations, and that an act is undetermined by any inherent or external factor or combination of factors.
The problem with this view, is that such freedom does not exist in creatures. For example, there is nothing in man that would permit him to fly (unaided by external gadgets) should he choose to. Man cannot do something just because he wills it. Every action is consistent with nature, and a choice is an act, so that man cannot do, unaided by an external agent, that which is against his nature. I will come back to this later.
The second problem with libertarian freedom is that if a choice is independent of inclinations and nature, then we cannot be held responsible for our decisions at all. If my volition just acts autonomously, uninfluenced by my desires and condition of the heart, then it operates on its own, rather than on my behalf. Then I am not responsible for my action, since my entire being is not united with my will. I am disjointed, and not in control of my decisions. My will, as it is, is my uncontrollable master, whose actions I cannot say that I chose, but whose consequences I am forced to share. My will cannot be called mine, except in so far as I am its slave.
The third problem with defining free will as the equal inherent ability to do either A or B, in which A is the opposite of B is that when we identify freedom this way, we remove God. For God only does what is right, and has no inherent ability to sin. So if ‘free will’ is the intrinsic ability to choose either good or evil equally, then God does not possess a free will. But if God does not have a free will, then where does it come from, and where does it obtain its ontological goodness?
What is the nature of fallen man?
It is notable that the Bible nowhere describes fallen man as morally neutral so that he has inherent ability to choose either bad or good. This is what scripture says:
Gen 6:5 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 8:21 Then the Lord said in His heart, “I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”
Jer. 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?
In fact, scripture describes fallen man as a slave to sin:
John 8:34 Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.”
Romans 6:20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.
The sinful nature of man is very radical that wicked man cannot choose God and salvation on his own, unaided by the inward transforming grace of God.
John 15:5 without Me you can do nothing.
Jeremiah 13:23 Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Then may you also do good who are accustomed to do evil.
Rom 8:7-8 Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
1 Cor 2:14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
All these passages speak of the human inability to choose God. Recall my saying that action is consistent with nature, and a choice is an act, so that man cannot do, unaided by an external agent, that which is against his heart. It is impossible for the unbeliever to choose God until God has changed his heart. And the reason this is so is that they are slaves to sin, with their hearts seeking after sin continually.
So What About Freewill?
Luther has unfavorable thoughts toward that term, for it portrays falsehood. Calvin is reserved about it, and Spurgeon doesn’t think it is a right word to use. We have seen that sinful man is not free, and that includes his will. He is a slave that Christ came to liberate from the bondage of sin. When Christ comes, He does not come to save a part of man. And yet, if the will is not fallen, it would not need salvation, which would indicate that the will is not part of God’s redemption plan. But if we pray ‘not my will but yours be done,’ as long as we seek to subject our will to His, we acknowledge that our will needs redemption from sin.
One objection I anticipate from some people is that that to deny libertarian free will is to deny personal responsibility. They would ask, ‘why would God judge us if we have no power to choose otherwise?’
To this I respond that we are judged, not because we have the inherent ability not to sin (and I speak of a natural man), but that we sin willingly. Our sinning is not forced. No one desires not to sin and sins for lack of capacity not to sin. Our sin in Adam was voluntary, and thus as his children, judgment comes on us rightly, for we are willing rebels and enemies of God. Therefore, to have a free will should be distinguished from voluntary action. This is the second possibility of conceiving free will. It is not the inherently equal ability to do A or B, but instead the ability to choose without being forced.
You remember my illustration of man’s inability to fly? It is true that by nature I cannot fly. But that does not mean that I do not willingly walk or run. We sin based on our sinful nature. Even if we once flew and lost our ability to fly, the mere fact that we enjoy walking (I am speaking metaphorically) would be evidence enough that we rejoice in our fallenness.
But what about those imperatives where God places ‘life and death’ before our eyes? What does that serve if we cannot choose life on our own? I respond that this was the purpose of the Law, namely, to show us our inability to choose life, and thus our need for a Savior. Until we acknowledge this grave fall in which we are wholly are enslaved to sin, we will not appreciate the full encompassing power of the gift of life in Christ.
I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org