1 God has provided the human will by nature with liberty and power to act upon choice; it is neither forced, nor determined by any intrinsic necessity to do good or evil.1
Despite what some think, Reformed thought does not deny that man has a free will. Our confession begins by acknowledging its reality and defining it. God created man with the freedom and power to make choices and act on them. By his very constitution and nature man has the ability to make choices. He is not forced by outside powers or from necessities arising from within his nature to do things, good or bad, that he does not choose to do. Environment, upbringing and pressing events may make one course of action more pleasing or desirable, but man remains free to do what he wants within the limits of his ability. Without this ability to choose, all notions of responsibility and accountability would be worthless. We should be aware that this basic component of our humanity is under attack today, not from Calvinistic theologians, but from evolutionary psychologists and philosophers. They tell us our free will is all a matter of perception and not reality since our genes or subconscious minds predetermine our actions. As those who believe we were created in the image of the sovereign God, we reject this atheistic view of human nature.
2 In his state of innocence, Adam had freedom and power to will and to do what was good and well-pleasing to God;2 but he was unstable so that he might fall from this condition.3
Before the fall man had the ability to desire and do what was good in God’s eyes. Had Adam chosen to, he could have lived a life of perfect righteousness and been found acceptable by God. Not being confirmed in righteousness (as for example the holy angels are) it was possible for Adam to fall from this state of righteousness. God did not create the world in such a way that Adam was forced along a certain path and made to fall, but he did make the fall a real possibility by giving Adam the ability to choose between good and evil.
3 The human race through the fall into a state of sin, has completely lost all ability of will to perform any spiritual good accompanying salvation. In our natural state we are altogether opposed to spiritual good and dead in sin; we are not able, by our own strength, to convert ourselves, or even to prepare ourselves for conversion.4
Because Adam chose to sin, the nature of man has been distorted. There is still an ability to choose, and man is under obligation to use this ability to choose what is right. He has, however, lost all ability to will or desire doing those things that are spiritually good and lead ultimately to salvation. He is free to choose good over evil, and in fact is expected to do just that, but he is no longer able to do so. The natural man is dead in sin. He is not merely spiritually sick in need of a booster shot to help him deal with sin on his own. He is instead utterly opposed to all that God wants for him and from him. He is entirely incapable of turning on his own to God or even preparing himself to turn to God. Appeals for the lost to do anything to make themselves more acceptable to God so God can begin his work of salvation are useless. Apart from the grace of God the natural man will never choose anything that is good or pleasing to God. Salvation does not begin when a man chooses to turn to God, but when God chooses to draw a man to himself.
Objections to this doctrine are frequent. Waldron does a good job of summarizing and answering these. It is said that this understanding of man’s free will is inconsistent with God’s commands revealed in Scripture. It is held by those who object to this doctrine that God’s commands to repent and believe necessarily imply the ability to repent and believe. First, however, Scripture is clear on both points. God does command us to believe in Jesus (Acts 16:31) and yet it is equally clear that we cannot come on our own but must be drawn to him by the Father (Jn 6:44). Men are commanded to repent (Acts 2:38) and yet Paul says that it is the Lord who grants repentance (2 Tim 2:25). Our first question in matters of doctrine is not about what seems reasonable or fair, but must be directed towards what Scripture says, and it clearly teaches man must repent and believe, but that these graces come only as granted by God.
Second, if we accept the argument that God’s command implies our ability to obey that command, then we would expect that man is capable of perfectly obeying God always, in all things since that is what God expects. This not only contradicts the Scriptural teaching of what all men have done (Rom 3:23), but also of what it is possible for man apart from God to understand much less do (1 Cor 2:14). Third, this misunderstanding confuses natural inability with moral inability. The natural man can trust and feel sorrow, he just cannot direct these towards Christ and sin. He is like the drunk driver who cannot keep his car between the lines. It is not that he does not have the physical ability to do so, it is that his fondness for alcohol has made it impossible for him. Man’s love of sin likewise makes it certain that he will not choose the spiritual good over evil. He knows how to make choices, he does make choices, but in his spiritual drunkenness he will not choose to repent and believe.Another argument against this understanding of free will is that it leads to hopelessness in those who believe it. The premise of this argument seems to be that some want salvation, but knowing they can never obtain it no matter what they do, they are driven to despair. Scripture teaches that no man on his own seeks after God (Rom 3:10-11). We need also to remember that a sense of our complete inadequacy is a necessary prerequisite to salvation. Jesus did not come to save the righteous, but he came for those who know themselves to be sinners. When we finally realize we are utterly lost and helpless to save ourselves we are ready to cry out to God for help, and he promises he will be there to help. Men do not need to be told to straighten their lives up morally in order to prepare themselves to receive God’s grace. They need to be told that they are bound for hell unless they cry out to God for mercy, and that his promise, which is never broken, is to save all who do so.
4 When God converts sinners and transfers them into the state of grace, he frees them from their natural bondage to sin, and by his grace alone he enables them freely to will and to do what is spiritually good.5 Nevertheless, because of their remaining corruption, they do not perfectly nor exclusively will what is good, but also will what is evil.6
When God converts us, gives us new minds, he sets us free from the law of sin and death (Rom 8:2) so that we are no longer slaves to sin (Rom 6:16). Slavery to sin is the natural state of man since the fall. In this state man is free to do what he wants, but his intellect and will have been so distorted by sin that left to himself he always chooses sin. He is free to do God’s will, but is unable to do it because his will never leads him to choose it. As a result of God’s undeserved gift, not because of any new determination on our part to do right, we are set free to do what is good. God works in us to will and act according to his good purpose (Phil 2:13). It is only God’s act of regeneration whereby we are given new life that this ability is made possible. Despite the fact that we are being inwardly renewed day by day (1 Cor 4:16), the corruptions of our sinful nature are never completely healed in this life. The old man is being renewed and transformed, but as long as we are in this world we will continue to be torn between the good and what is evil (Rom 7:15-19). Sin is not just what we do, it is a part of what we are thus making it impossible for us to serve righteousness as wholeheartedly as we once served sin.
5 Only in the state of glory will our wills be made perfectly and permanently free to do good alone.7
Some in the church throughout the ages have taught that sanctification in the sense of “a state of confirmed, and entire consecration of body, soul and spirit” is attainable in this life. These have taught that it is possible to come to the point not that it is impossible to sin, but that a person does not and will not sin” (Finney, 380, 381). Some of those in the Wesleyan tradition who believe complete sanctification in this lifetime is a possibility have done so by restricting the definition of sin. John Wesley once said, “Nothing is sin, strictly speaking, but a voluntary transgression of a known law of God. Therefore, every voluntary breach of the law of love is sin; and nothing else, if we speak properly” (Garrett 1:463). A more Biblical view of sin, however, sees any breach of God’s law, whether it is voluntary or not, as sin. For those who see sin as much in the very nature of man as in the things that he does, the hope of a will that always chooses good and ability to carry out that good perfectly await the day when the old man has been completely transformed into the new man and joined with our spiritual bodies at the resurrection. Until then we will struggle with sin, even though we love righteousness, and will have victory over sin only by conscious dependence on the strength of God.