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Do we have free will is a question that stirs much controversy among Christians, especially as it relates to salvation. It would be good to define our terms. So what is the free will meaning? Free will in Christianity means that mankind has within themselves the ability to make real choices. This is opposite to the idea of ‘fate’ or that God has so determined everything that man has no choice but to robotically follow the course laid out for him. Actual choices would then be just a Matrix-style illusion.
In Christianity, this is seen most clearly in one’s belief of how people come into a relationship with Jesus, i.e. salvation. Calvinists claim that men [and women] cannot come to God unless God first calls them. In other words, God must choose - or elect - those who are going to be saved. Arminians believe free will in the Bible means that God has provided the way of salvation, but man must choose whether to accept it or not. [I know this is simplified, but it gives a general idea.]
So do humans have free will or not? As with many issues, the answer is both yes and no. If you will be patient with me, I will explain. Let’s go back to the beginning…
As far as I know, everyone agrees that Adam and Eve had free will in the Garden of Eden. God set the perfect couple in a perfect environment with no lack of any kind and satisfying relationships and work. He only gave them one rule: not to eat from the Tree Of The Knowledge Of Good And Evil. This was not a ‘magical’ tree but a real tree that represented a real test of obedience. Adam and Eve had the ability to choose to obey God or to betray Him and act treasonously. They could decide either way. We know they chose the path of disobedience. The controversial question is: Is there free will after the Fall? Did Adam and Eve lose their free will or retain it?
What did God tell Adam and Eve would happen if they disobeyed?
And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” Gen. 2:16-17, NIV
God told Adam that he would die when he ate from the tree. Now we know that Adam did not die physically the moment he ate from the tree, although the process of physical death was begun. However, we see that he did die covenantally immediately. His intimate relationship with God was severed. He died spiritually.
Paul confirms this in the New Testament:
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins….But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. Eph. 2:1, 4-5, NIV
As the representative of the human race, the consequences of Adam’s choice were passed to everyone born from Adam and Eve - which is everyone! We are all born spiritually dead - separated from our relationship with God.
No genuine Christian disputes that Jesus paid the price for our sins on the cross so that we could be forgiven and enter into a life-giving covenant and relationship with God. The question is: Can we choose to come to God on our own, or does He have to call us before we can come to Him?
Think back to what happened in the Fall. Remember what Paul said. “You were dead in your transgressions and sins…”. A dead body doesn’t care what happens to it. A dead body can make no decisions. In order for a person to make a decision, there must be at least some life. But Paul tells us we were as dead as a doornail. No life, no decision, no free will in regard to salvation.
Jesus confirms this:
All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. John 6:37, NIV
“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. John 17:24, NIV
The Father gives the ones He has chosen to the Son. The Father is the One Who chooses who He will save.
Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. John 1:12-13, NIV
This is plain; becoming a child of God is not by a human decision but by God’s decision.
Here’s a question for you: Why does God command everyone to repent if only those He has chosen will repent?
In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. Acts 17:30, NIV
Having free will is part of being created in the image of God. We do get to make choices, and we are responsible for our choices. Am I contradicting myself? Is free will real or not? Stretch your mind a little with this statement: Free will is real where we are alive, and is it an illusion where we are dead.
Before we look at that, we need to examine why we make the decisions that we do. The plain fact is that we make decisions based on what we desire most. We choose what we want. Before you object too much, think about that statement. Consider these examples,
1. You go to see a movie you don’t like because your spouse wants to see it. What did you desire most? Depending on your situation, you wanted to please your spouse; you wanted to avoid a fight; you wanted to avoid being home alone when your spouse went out, etc. Yes, you saw a movie you didn’t want to, but it was because you chose something you desired more than watching a movie of your choice.
2. A person points a gun at you and demands your money or your life. You do not want to give him your money, but you may desire the increased chance of survival more than your money. Or you may desire your money more than the perceived safety of cooperation and fight or run. Either way, you are making a decision based on what you desire most.
Let’s look at this in a practical way: a new husband can make the free will choice to be the ideal husband or an abusive husband, or anywhere in between. That is a choice he can not only make but also is responsible for making. This can be applied to the millions of decisions we make every day. Humans have free will to make decisions in any area in which they are alive. [Important note: We can choose our actions, but we cannot choose the consequences of those actions. The husband who makes bad marriage decisions may face the consequence of divorce, over which he has no choice.]
The answer should be obvious. The husband who had died can no longer make good or bad marriage decisions. If fact, he can make no decisions at all. He is dead.
The Bible clearly identifies an area of our being in which we are dead, I.e. our relationship with God. We stand condemned by both Original Sin and Personal Sin. We are under the judgment of God, and because we are dead in sin, there is nothing we can do about it. God must resurrect us, or we can never ‘make the decision’ to come to Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Salvation is totally a work of God from beginning to end. Anything else takes some of God’s glory and gives it to man. If man is responsible for anything in relation to salvation - no matter how small - then he has something to boast about. The Bible is clear: Man has nothing to boast about.
Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Rom. 3:27-28, NIV
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. Eph. 2:8-9, NIV
We come to Jesus by faith, and even that faith is a gift from God. We bring nothing to the table! Free will in Christianity does not include the possibility of turning to Jesus for salvation. In that area, we are dead and can do nothing.
This brings us back to the question we asked above. If, as we have shown, only those people chosen by God will be saved, why does God command everyone to repent? Let’s try to put this together.
We are God’s creation. We are responsible to Him as our Creator for everything. We owe Him love and obedience. However, we are in treasonous rebellion against Him - either passively or actively. Through the blood of Jesus Christ on the cross, God has provided the way to have a restored relationship with Him. It is the duty and responsibility of every person to accept this offer and return to a right relationship with God and humble obedience to Him. As the Creator and Owner, God has the right to command us to do this.
Now you will need to think about this carefully. God has the right to command us to repent, and we have the ability to repent. Anyone could repent of their sins and accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour. It is not difficult, God has already done everything, and He offers it as a free gift to us. To refuse it and continue in our rebellious way is to spit in the face of God. Therefore, God is perfectly just sending any human being who rejects His offer to Hell. In reality, they are going to Hell because that is what they choose to do.
So we have the ability [and responsibility] to repent and turn to God, but no one ever has or ever will because sin has so corrupted our being that we have no desire to repent. Remember, we said we make our decisions based on what we desire most. No one in sin [which is all of us] desires God, and so no one would ever of their own free will choose to repent and accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
God looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. Everyone has turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. Ps. 53:2-3, NIV
There is no one who calls on Your name, Who stirs himself to take hold of You; For You have hidden Your face from us and have surrendered us to the power of our wrongdoings. Is. 64:7, NASB
In other words, due to sin, every human being from the Fall to the return of Christ desires their will above God’s will. No one will seek after God. Even when we do good things - from a human perspective - we do them from self-centred motives. If we think otherwise, we are self-deceived.
Once God graciously resurrects us, we begin to desire God. The process may be quick or slow, but once it has begun, it will continue until we come to the point where we desire God, repent and accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour. God’s Word cannot return void. Everyone He calls will respond.
We see this dramatically in the life of Saul/Paul. Saul was a religious man. He thought he was serving God and doing right by arresting and killing Christians. He was committed, loyal and determined. There is no doubt that Saul, of his own free will, would ever have chosen to become a Christian. Yet the call of God was on his life. In God’s timing, life was given, the light went on, and Paul accepted Jesus as his Lord and Saviour. Paul himself says:
For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles… Gal. 1:13-16, NIV
Notice that Paul says he was chosen while still in the womb - chosen when he had no choice in the matter. He zealously pursued his own agenda until God, in grace, said, “Now is the time for salvation.” The fact is, because of our sin-corrupted will, we all chose of our own free will to go to Hell. It is only when God graciously interferes with our sin-corrupted choices and gives us life to open our minds to all the possibilities that we inevitably and irresistibly are drawn to Him, repent of our sins and accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
The sovereignty of God and the free will of man are subjects that our finite human brains can probably never fully comprehend. There will always be some questions. God is sovereign. Part of God’s image in mankind was the ability to make choices that matter. Nevertheless, God has not and will never surrender any degree of sovereignty. He is in control and has the right and ability to work according to His good pleasure. No free will of man will ever interfere in the plan and purposes of God at all.
Why are the nations restless
And the peoples plotting in vain?
The kings of the earth take their stand
And the rulers conspire together
Against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying,
“Let’s tear their shackles apart
And throw their ropes away from us!”
He who sits in the heavens laughs,
The Lord scoffs at them.
Then He will speak to them in His anger
And terrify them in His fury, saying,
“But as for Me, I have installed My King
Upon Zion, My holy mountain.” Ps. 2:1-6, NASB
While we try to understand these things in balance, if we error, let’s err on the side of God’s sovereignty. Let us not be guilty of giving any of God’s glory, majesty or honour to man.
I know this article has probably opened up all sorts of related questions, which we may deal with in other articles. For now, you may be interested in reading Are Only A Few Chosen To Be Saved? The answer may surprise you!
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