Do We Have a Free Will? - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahonThe Tract Series
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If the 21st century church voted on their consensus concerning man’s participation in salvation, the overwhelming majority would state that every person has a free will and exercises that will when the Gospel is offered to them. But the question must be asked for clarification, “What exactly, according to the majority voters, is a free will?” They mean to say that people, before salvation, have the capacity, in and of themselves, to choose whether or not Christ may save them. They believe that people are able to accept or reject the Gospel according to their own choice, and either side of this choice, whether to follow Christ or not, is available to them by nature. These lost people, they say, have the ability to think about, and then decide, whether or not they want to follow the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Does the Bible agree with those who believe in free-will advocacy that a man or woman is able, in and of themselves, to freely choose whether or not to be saved? This is the heart of the question. Many will say that the Bible is not clear, since the debate about this has been manifest for 1500 years. However, the manifestation of controversy in no way justified the statement that there has been any real in-depth debate for 1500 years. The fact that false teachers arise to stir up controversy is by no means a warrant to assert the truth of their claims. Their appearance on the scene of church history has only inflamed the truth to stand forth that much more. For we know that the Bible teaches a clear and precise answer on this issue which we can stand on in the truth, and know with certainty.
Every man is a free moral agent. This I must state at the outset. Free-will theists who insist that Calvinists do not believe that men are free moral agents, simply do not know Calvinism. They have believed a caricature. So at the outset, and right from the beginning, I desire to state in no uncertain terms that men are free, and they have wills which are connected vitally to their moral makeup. In saying this, it must be qualified. The free-will theists (those who believe God gave everyone a free will to choose as they see fit, whether good or evil) forget one of the most important doctrines of the Scripture, and all the logical necessities which come out of that Bible doctrine. What I am speaking of is the doctrine of sin, and the affects sin have had on the human race. Genesis 6:5 states, “the Lord saw that the wickedness of man as great in the earth and every intent and thought of his heart was only evil continually.” This is a very explicit verse, and quite important. We are sinners, and our sin captivates our mind totally. That is why the doctrine of sin, properly understood, is called Total Depravity; meaning, man is totally affected in all parts of his mind, emotions and spirit, by the Fall of Adam. It does not mean that we are utterly depraved, or as bad as we can be. Rather it means we are totally affected in every faculty of our being. So, then, the question arises, if in our natures we are always sinful, how then could we have the capacity to choose something that we already detest? How many of your next door neighbors are exuberantly waiting for you to come over and tell them they “are sinners who are on their way to hell unless they repent and believe in Jesus?” I would imagine that no one likes that. The Bible tells us that people hate that kind of talk. How many people on the street want to hear about Jesus? They detest it and will even persecute you for telling them such things.
Some one may say, “I don’t understand? Why would I, or anyone, detest the Gospel-its good news?!” But that is the whole point. If you have not detested the Gospel, then it may be that you simply do not really know the Gospel. The Gospel, being good news, is detestable to us because we are evil and our desires are evil. We do have wills, but our wills are always captivated and controlled by what we desire to do. For instance: I am sitting in this chair right now because I choose to sit here to be able to work on writing this short article. If I did not want to write this tract I would not be doing so. But because my desire to write this tract is stronger than any other desire I have at this present time, that is what I do. If my desire was to eat lunch, I would go and eat lunch, but since I already have eaten lunch, my desire is not to eat but to write. This may all seem trivial since I am not speaking of salvation. But the point here is this: my desire controls my will. My will is a fruit of my desire, not the cause. My will, my actions on a given thing, derive from my desire. My will is not the cause of my desires. I do not first do things, then want to do them – that would be backwards. The desires of my heart control how I think and feel at any given time. I desire something first, then I will to do that particular thing. When someone says that an unsaved person, who has a heart of stone, and detests and rebels against God in every way, is capable of freely choosing something they do not desire, then they are not understanding that their desire rules their wills.
The only way a free-will theist can be right is if his heart is neutral – that means it is unaffected by anything, good or bad. But the free-will theist does not see this, and he does not see that this is an impossibility. No one has a neutral heart; not the devil, not God, nor you or I. If his heart is good, then it desires good things. If his heart is bad, then he desires bad things. If his heart is neutral there would be the appearance that the heart then could choose good or evil. But there is a great problem with this idea. Here is an analogy: suppose there is a donkey who stands in front of two bails of hay; one on his right and the other at his left. He looks at the one, then the other. Let’s say this donkey has a neutral heart. So which one does he decide to eat? Which one will he choose to eat? The answer is neither. Since the two bails are both the same, and his heart is neutral-which means it is unbiased towards either–then he would never choose to eat either of them, but would just stand there and starve. Now in reality, the donkey would not starve because his will is not neutral. It is hungry-so it eats! Maybe he is closer to the one than the other and decides to eat it. But if he were standing between two bails of cotton, he would not eat either because he does not like to eat cotton. In any case, a neutral free will does not exist. No one’s will is neutral, and the Bible never, ever says that man is neutral. The Bible emphatically teaches that men have wicked and depraved hearts. Everyone is biased by the intents and thoughts of their heart (Gen. 6:5; Jeremiah 17:9). Christ said, “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witnesses, blasphemies (Matthew 15:19).”
So when we say someone has a free will, and we think they can choose good or evil, we are not speaking biblically. What we should say is this: everyone has a will which is controlled by their heart’s desire – they are free moral agents. If they are unsaved, and their desire is evil, then they will never choose to follow Jesus because they cannot and will not – they always choose evil. God must first change their heart (Ezekiel 36:26; John 3:3) before they are able to believe. For when the Spirit of God circumcises their heart (Romans 2:29), He then gives that person the capability to believe and hear the Gospel. And since the person really hears it with a new heart that is capable of good, then the person believes, is saved, and enters into eternal glory when they die, if the Lord tarries.
We never have a neutral free will. We are always a slave to something. Before we are saved we are slaves to sin. After we are saved we are slaves of Christ, just as Paul states in Romans 1:1, “Paul a bondservant of Jesus Christ…” (the word “bondservant” is “doulos” which means “slave.”). The Westminster Confession of Faith states, “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 to prepare himself thereunto.” So the Confession is telling us the same thing. Man is unable to will any good thing when he is not saved. He has an evil heart which is continually desiring to do evil, and so that is all he chooses.
There is also another problem; for the free-will theist, free-will theology is never consistent. You ask someone who believes in free-will if they had free-will before they are saved. They say “yes.” You ask them if they are free after they are saved, they still say “yes” to remain consistent. But that poses a problem and a question – if you were free before salvation to choose or not choose to follow Jesus, what about after salvation? Can you choose to freely walk away from Christ? Can you choose to freely reject the salvation He saved you with even after you have been converted? Is the power of Jesus Christ’s cross nullified by your “free-will?” If they are consistent with their theology they must answer “yes.” (If they see the error they are making then all we need to do is show them that free-will is inconsistent before salvation as well as after.) Then their theology suffers harshly when we ask the same question upon entrance into heaven. After you enter heaven do you still have free will? To be consistent they must say “yes.” Then can a person freely walk out of heaven? They shudder to answer that one. But you see the problem. When does God take away your free-will? He must at some point. If any real security of salvation is to be found, free-will in this manner must be erased from our minds. Philippians 1:6 would be wrong. “He who began a good work in you will continue it until the day of completion” would not be true. We would have to rewrite it to say, “You who have begun some kind of free-will work in yourself and believed on Christ will hopefully continue to believe it until the end or else you will fall away.” That does not show forth very much security and des great injustice to the finished work of Christ. Or what about Jesus’ words in John 10:28, “And I give them eternal life and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone them out of my hand.” Words like these are secure for believers because they show forth the power of Christ, and the power of His saving hand, not our “free-will.” The idea of free-will is completely foreign to the text. You must remove these texts, and hundreds of others for free-will theists to be right.
There are always objections. People say, “but I feel like I am free.” Our subjective experience of feeling is never a warrant for biblical truth. Some people would say that the offer of the Gospel is not sincere if people are not free-to-choose. But that is not a logical assumption. God never changes His commands to suit our needs. His requirement for us has always been “Be Holy as I the Lord am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2) But God knows that we do not have the capability in our fallen state to be holy, yet He still requires us to be just like He is in holiness. Just because people do not have the spiritual capability to believe the Gospel does not make God’s offer invalid. Even though men cannot believe, they are still without excuse. The offer stands even though people cannot respond without God’s sovereign intervention.
There are many of you who have just read this pamphlet who will go away saying, “He’s nuts. I don’t believe him.” But, you prove my point just the same. Your will is captive to your desire. Your desire not to listen to the biblical advice presented in this article demonstrates you are being captivated by your own hearts desire – which is to believe in free-will theism – even though the Biblical evidence tells you otherwise. So you choose to disbelieve because of your desire to hold onto your so called “free-will.”
It is true, I believe we are all free moral agents, and we do have a will – but they are wills captive to our hearts desire. We are free to choose, but only free to choose from the disposition and intent of our hearts. If a person is unregenerate, or lost, then they will choose evil. If they are regenerated, or born again, then they can choose evil or good. The Christian experiences the war of the flesh and the Spirit. He is in a constant battle to submit his will unto Christ. But all men, good or evil, all choose freely what their heart’s desire. Their will is the water which springs from the fountain of their heart’s nature.
Encouragement in Christian circles is lacking, so encouragement is what I offer here. If you do not believe that what has been taught in this article is the truth, then I would encourage you to study the Scriptures very carefully in order that the Holy Spirit will teach you about the freedom of the will. Acts 17:11 states, “The Bereans were more noble than the Thessalonians for they received the message with great eagerness, and searched the Scriptures daily to see if what Paul was saying was true.” This is more than a sundry or casual reading of text – this was studying the text. The Bereans were especially gifted in study being “noble” and of “noble-birth.” They were skilled in study, and I pray that you are skilled in the same. Without study, we will never understand what God has ready for us to discover. And we cannot simply take another’s word for it. I would also encourage you to read 3 treatises dealing with the will: one written by Martin Luther called The Bondage of the Will, a second written by John Calvin The Bondage and Liberation of the Will, and thirdly, Jonathan Edwards’ work, The Freedom of the Will. Each of these will help greatly in the reader’s understanding of the manner in which the will operates. Between these three works, and the Bible’s infallible witness to the truth, there should be no question on the manner and operation of the human will.