The Idol of Free-Will

Dr. John Owen (1616-1683)

The Idol of Free Will

The Idol of Free-Will
by Dr. John Owen

Our next task is to take a view of the idol himself, of this great deity of FREE-WI LL, whose original being not well known. He is pretended, like the Ephesian image of Diana[1], to have fallen down from heaven and to have his endowments from above. But yet considering what a nothing he was a this first discovery in comparison of that vast giant-like hugeness to which now he is grown, we may say of him as the painter said of his monstrous picture, which he had mended or rather marred according to every one’s fancy, “It is the issue[2] of the people’s brain.” Origen[3] is supposed to have brought him first into the church; but among those many sincere worshippers of divine grace, this setter forth of new demons found but little entertainment. It was looked upon but like the stump of Dagon with his head and hands laid down before the ark of God without whose help he could neither know nor do that which is good in any kind, still accounted but “a fig – tree log, an unprofitable piece of wood.” The fathers of the succeeding ages had much debate to what use they should put it, and though some exalted it a degree or two above its merits, yet the most concluded to keep it a block still until at length there arose a stout champion,[4] challenging on his behalf the whole church of God, and like a knight-errant,[5] wandered from the west to the east to grapple with any that should oppose his idol; who, though he met with divers adversaries, one especially,[6] who in the behalf of the grace of God continually foiled him and cast him to the ground, and that in the judgment of all the lawful judges assembled in councils and in the opinion of most of the Christian bystanders. Yet by his cunning insinuation,[7] he planted such an opinion of his idol’s deity and self-sufficiency in the hearts of divers[8] that to this day it could never be rooted out.

Now after the decease of his Pelagian worshippers, some of the corrupter schoolmen,[9] seeing him thus from his birth exposed without shelter to wind and weather, to all assaults, out of mere charity and self-love built him a temple and adorned it with natural lights, merits, uncontrolled independent operations, [and] many other gay attendances. But in the beginning of the Reformation—that fatal time for idolatry and superstition together with abbeys and monasteries—the zeal and learning of our forefathers with the help of God’s Word demolished this temple and brake this building down to the ground. In the rubbish whereof we well hoped the idol himself had been so deeply buried as that his head should never more have been exalted to the trouble of the church of God, until not long since some curious wits, whose weak stomachs were clogged with manna and loathed the sincere milk of the word, raking all dunghills for novelties, lighted unhappily upon this idol, and presently with no less joy than did the mathematician at the discovery of a new geometrical proportion exclaim, “We have found it! We have found it!” And without more ado, up they erected a shrine, and until this day continue offering of praise and thanks for all the good they do to this work of their own hands.[10]

And that the idol may be free from ruin, to which in himself they have found by experience that he is subject, they have matched him to contingency,[11] a new goddess of their own creation, who having proved very fruitful in monstrous births upon their conjunctions,[12] they nothing doubt they shall never [lack] one to set on the throne and make president of all human actions. So that after he hath, with various success at least twelve hundred years, contended with the providence and grace of God, he boasteth now as if he had obtained a total victory. But yet all his prevailing is to be attributed to the diligence and varnish of his new abettors[13] with—to our shame be it spoken!—the negligence of his adversaries. In him and his cause there is no more real worth than was when by the ancient fathers he was exploded and cursed out of the church. So that they, who can attain, through the many winding labyrinths of curious distinctions to look upon the thing itself, shall find that they have been like Egyptian novices, brought, through many stately frontispieces[14] and goodly fabrics with much show of zeal and devotion, to the image of an ugly ape.

Yet here observe, that we do not absolutely oppose free-will, as if it were a mere figment [or as if] there is no such thing in the world, but only in that sense the Pelagians and Arminians[15] do assert it. About words we will not contend. We grant man in the substance of all his actions as much power, liberty, and freedom as a mere created nature is capable of. We grant him to be free in his choice from all outward coaction[16] or inward natural necessity to work according to [choice] and deliberation, spontaneously embracing what seemeth good unto him. Now call this power free-will or what you please, [as long as] you make it not supreme, independent, and boundless, we are not at all troubled. The imposition of names depends upon the discretion of their inventers.

Again, even in spiritual things, we deny that our wills are at all debarred[17] or deprived of their proper liberty. But here we say, indeed, that we are not properly free until the Son makes us free . . .we do not claim such a liberty as should make us despise the grace of God, whereby we may attain true liberty indeed, which addeth to, but taketh nothing from our original freedom. But of this, after I have showed what an idol the Arminians make of free-will. Only take notice in the entrance that we speak of it now, not as it was at first by God created, but as it is now by sin corrupted; yet being considered in that estate also, they ascribe more unto it than it was ever capable of.

“Herein,” saith Arminius, “consisteth the liberty of the will, that all things required to enable it to will anything being accomplished, it still remains indifferent[18] to will or not.” And all of them at the Synod:[19] “There is,” say they, “accompanying the will of man an inseparable property, which we call liberty, from whence the will is termed a power, which when all things prerequired as necessary to operation are fulfilled, may will anything or not will it.” That is, our free-wills have such an absolute and uncontrollable power in the territory of all human actions, that no influence of God’s providence, no certainty of His decree, no unchangeableness of His purpose can sway it at all in its free determinations or have any power with His highness to cause him to will or resolve on any such act as God by him intendeth to produce! Take an instance in the great work of our conversion. “All unregenerate men” saith Arminius, “have by virtue of their free-will a power of resisting the Holy Spirit, of rejecting the offered grace of God, of contemning[20] the counsel of God concerning themselves, of refusing the gospel of grace, of not opening the heart to him that knocketh.” What a stout idol is this, whom neither the Holy Spirit, the grace and counsel of God, the calling of the gospel, the knocking at the door of the heart, can move at all, or in the least measure prevail against him! Woe be unto us then, if when God calls us, our free-will be not in good temper and well disposed to hearken unto Him! For it seems there is no dealing with it by any other ways, though powerful and almighty. “For grant” saith Corvinus,[21] “all the operations of grace which God can use in our conversion, yet conversion remaineth so in our own free power that we can be not converted; that is, we can either turn or not turn ourselves,” where the idol plainly challengeth the Lord to work His utmost and tells Him that after He hath so done, he will do what he please. His infallible prescience,[22] His powerful predetermination, the moral efficacy of the gospel, the infusion of grace, the effectual operation of the Holy Spirit, all are nothing, not at all available in helping or furthering our independent wills in their proceedings. Well, then in what estate will you have the idol placed?

“In such a one wherein he may be suffered to sin or to do well at his pleasure” as the same author intimates. It seems then as to sin, so nothing is required for him to be able to do good but God’s permission? No! For the Remonstrants[23] “do always suppose a free power of obeying or not obeying, as well in those who do obey as in those who do not obey”—where all the praise of our obedience, whereby we are made to differ from others, is ascribed to ourselves alone, and that free power that is in us.

Now, this they mean not of any one act of obedience, but of faith itself, and the whole consummation thereof. “For if a man should say, that every man in the world hath a power of believing if he will, and of attaining salvation, and that this power is settled in his nature, what argument have you to confute[24] him?” saith Arminius triumphantly to Perkins,[25] where the sophistical innovator[26] as plainly confounds grace and nature as ever did Pelagius. That, then, which the Arminians claim here in behalf of their free-will is, an absolute independence of God’s providence in doing anything, and of His grace in doing that which is good—a self-sufficiency in all its operations, a plenary indifferency[27] of doing what we will, this or that, as being neither determined to the one nor inclined to the other by any overruling influence from heaven. So that the good acts of our wills have no dependence on God’s providence as they are acts or on His grace as they are good, but in both regards proceed from such a principle within us as is no way moved by any superior agent.

Now, the first of these we deny unto our wills because they are created; and the second because they are corrupted. Their creation hinders them from doing anything of themselves without the assistance of God’s providence; and their corruption from doing anything that is good without His grace. A selfsufficiency for operation without the effectual motion of Almighty God, the first cause of all things, we can allow neither to men nor angels unless we intend to make them gods. And a power of doing good equal unto that they have of doing evil, we must not grant to man by nature unless we will deny the fall of Adam and fancy ourselves still in Paradise.

Endued we are with such a liberty of will as is free from all outward compulsion and inward necessity, having an elective faculty of applying itself unto that which seems good unto it, in which it is a free choice. Notwithstanding, it is subservient to the decree of God, as I showed before. Most free it is in all its acts, both in regard of the object it chooseth and in regard of that vital power and faculty whereby it worketh, infallibly complying with God’s providence and working by virtue of the motion thereof. But surely to assert such a supreme independency and every way unbounded indifferency as the Arminians claim, whereby, all other things requisite being presupposed, it should remain absolutely in our own power to will or not to will, to do anything or not to do it, is plainly to deny that our wills are subject to the rule of the Most High…against its exaltation to this height of independency, I oppose —

First, Everything that is independent of any else in operation is purely active, and so consequently a god; for nothing but a divine will can be a pure act, possessing such a liberty by virtue of its own essence. Every created will must have a liberty by participation, which includeth such an imperfect potentiality as cannot be brought into act without some pre-motion[28] of a superior agent. Neither doth this motion being extrinsical[29] at all prejudice the true liberty of the will, which requireth indeed that the internal principle of operation be active and free, but not that that principle be not moved to that operation by an outward superior agent. Nothing in this sense can have an independent principle of operation which hath not an independent being.

Secondly, if the free acts of our wills are so subservient to the providence of God as that He useth them to what end He will and by them effecteth many of His purposes, then they cannot of themselves be so absolutely independent as to have in their own power every necessary circumstance and condition, that they may use or not use at their pleasure. Now the former is proved by all those reasons and texts of Scripture I before produced to show that the providence of God overruleth the actions and determineth the wills of men freely to do that which He hath appointed. And, truly, were it otherwise, God’s dominion over the most things that are in the world [would be] quite excluded: He had not power to determine that any one thing should ever come to pass which hath any reference to the wills of men.

Thirdly, all the acts of the will being positive entities, were it not previously moved by God Himself, “in whom we live, move, and have our being,” must needs have their essence and existence solely from the will itself; which is thereby made a first and supreme cause, endued with an underived30] being.

Let us now, in the second place, look upon the power of our freewill in doing that which is morally good, where we shall find not only an essential imperfection, inasmuch as it is created, but also a contracted effect, inasmuch as it is corrupted. The ability which the Arminians ascribe unto it in this kind—of doing that which is morally and spiritually good—is as large as themselves will confess to be competent unto it in the state of innocency, even a power of believing and a power of resisting the gospel, of obeying and not obeying, of turning or of not being converted.

The Scripture, as I observed before, hath no such term at all or anything equivalent unto it. But the expressions it useth concerning our nature and all the faculties thereof in this state of sin and unregeneration seem to imply the quite contrary: as that we are in “bondage” (Heb 2:15); “dead in sins” (Eph 2:1); and so “free from righteousness” (Rom 6:20); “servants of sin” (v. 17); under the “reign” and “dominion” thereof, (vv. 12, 14); all “our members being instruments of unrighteousness” (v. 13); not “free indeed” until “the Son make us free” (Joh 8:36); so that this idol of FREE-WILL, in respect of spiritual things, is not one whit better than the other idols of the heathen.

1 Diana – Acts 19:24-35 Greek goddess of the moon; her temple at Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
2 issue – the flowing out, therefore, the product.
3 Origen (c. 185-c. 254) – theologian and Biblical scholar of the early Greek Church.
4 Pelagius (c. 354-c. 420) – British monk, who argued for a totally free human will to do good and held that divine grace was bestowed in relation to human merit. His views were condemned as heresy by the Council of Ephesus (431).
5 knight-errant – a wondering knight; a knight who traveled in search of adventures for the purpose of exhibiting military skill, prowess, and generosity.
6 Augustine of Hippo (354-430) – early church theologian born in Tagaste, North Africa. Known by many as the father of orthodox theology; taught the depravity of man and the grace of God in salvation.
7 insinuation – to work one’s self into favor subtly; to introduce gradually and by clever means.
8 divers – several; more than one but not a great number.
9 schoolmen – a term for the teachers of philosophy and theology in the Middle Ages. Also known as scholastics, examples would be Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) and John Duns Scotus (c. 1265-1308).
10 A reference to the followers of Arminius.
11 contingency – the absence of necessity; something that occurs only as a result of something else.
12 conjunctions – joining together, meaning the union of free-will and contingency.
13 abettors – to encourage, support, or assist in a criminal act.
14 frontispiece – the ornamental façade or face of a building.
15 Arminians/Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) – Dutch theologian, born in Oudewater, The Netherlands. He rejected the Reformers’ understanding of predestination, teaching instead that God’s predestination of individuals was based on His foreknowledge of their accepting or rejecting Christ by their own free will.
16 coaction – force; urging to action by moral pressure.
17 debarred –hindered or prevented.
18 indifferent – impartial.
19 Synod of Dort (1618-19) – a synod is an assembly of church officials. Such was the gathering of Reformed theologians at Dordrecht (Dort) in The Netherlands to counter and condemn the teachings of Jacobus Arminius and his followers (Remonstrants).
20 contemn – to treat as despicable; to reject as disdained.
21 Johannes Arnoldus Corvinus – supporter of Arminius and signer of the Remonstrance.
22 prescience – knowledge of actions or events before they occur.
23 Remonstrants – a remonstrant is one who protests or rejects. The Dutch Remonstrants were the followers of Jacobus Arminius who rejected the teaching of the Reformed churches and provoked the Synod of Dort.
24 confute – refute decisively.
25 William Perkins (1558-1602) – influential English Puritan theologian. Referred to by some as the “principle architect of Elizabethan Puritanism.”
26 Sophistical innovator – one who introduces something new with elaborate and devious arguments. The reference is to Arminius.
27 plenary indifferency – a full, a complete impartiality or neutrality.
28 pre-motion – a previous motion or excitement to action.
29 extrinsical – external; outward.
30 underived – not obtained from another source.

From “A Display of Arminianism,” in The Works of John Owen, Vol X, reprinted by The Banner of Truth Trust.