Is the Sinner’s will truly free?

It seems to me, the crucial issue that separates those who have written the Southern Baptist statement we have been discussing from the current minority in that Denomination who believe in God’s sovereignty in salvation is the doctrine of total depravity or total inability. If the minority is right, then the theological system of those who have penned this statement is totally unworkable. If, on the other hand, the majority is right, there is no need for most of what the minority believes. If sinners are not totally depraved [that is if sin has not radically affected and perverted every aspect of the sinner’s personality including the will], there is no need for God to choose anyone for salvation, and there is no need for God to enable sinners to believe through calling them effectually. If sinners are in a state of neutrality, the likelihood that sinners would choose eternal life over eternal torment would be very high. Who in his right mind wants to suffer for eternity? It would just make sense that anyone who heard the gospel would immediately embrace it rather than endure an eternity of agony. If sinners are not totally depraved, there would be no need for God to enable them to believe since they would already possess that ability. If God in his sovereignty has chosen to grant the power of “free will” to every sinner, would not that grant insure the ability to choose bliss rather than agony? Again, who in his right mind would refuse the offer to be freely forgiven of his sins and accepted as righteous in God’s sight without having to do a single thing? All sinners would have to do is believe the message. Clearly, the view of those who have penned this statement is vindicated by the fact that we see so many sinners making the right choice and coming to faith in Christ every time the gospel is preached with clarity, right? Certainly, no one with the ability to choose between continuing in sin and trusting Christ to save him from sin would choose to face an eternity of torments, right? If this is true, all we have to do is make the message plain and clear and every intelligent person who hears it will immediately embrace it. I think anyone who has ever been involved in the work of the gospel should know this doesn’t square with reality.

Please be clear in your understanding of what I am saying. I am not suggesting that evangelists cannot with high pressure tactics, and clever psychological and emotional manipulation cajole sinners into making a decision, walking an aisle, signing a card etc. I am talking about genuine life-changing, fruit-producing conversion. Walking an aisle doesn’t change a sinner’s heart.

You may recall the biblical account of a rich young man who approached our Lord with an expressed desire for eternal life. He wanted to know what he needed to do to obtain such a blessing. When Jesus told him to sell what he had, give it to the poor, and come follow him, he went away sorrowful because he had great riches. If sinners have such great ability to “decide for Christ,” one wonders how Jesus let this one slip through the net. The disciples were astonished when Jesus began to speak about how difficult it is to enter the kingdom. Consider the following words carefully,

And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God (Mark 10: 23-27).

It is impossible for a person to choose that for which he has absolutely no desire and to which he is utterly averse.

It is incredible to me that anyone who has ever been involved in evangelism could believe such a doctrine as “free will.” If people had free will, only the imbeciles and morons among them would choose to burn for eternity. The real issue, of course, it that the gospel calls on sinners to love a God against whom they are hostile and for whose fellowship they have no desire.

I could spend a great deal of time demonstrating from the Scriptures that sinners do not have “free will” in the sense that they are equally able to choose righteousness or sin. For example, the apostle Paul describes sinners as being “dead in trespasses and sins,” “alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them,” yet all the while, hostile toward God. How much freedom does a dead person have? How much ability does a dead person have? Sinners are clearly free to rebel against God, but are we free to love and obey him?

Are sinners free to choose any course of action they wish? Absolutely! Are they free to choose between faith in Christ and rebellion against him? Of course, they are! That sinners are able to choose freely does not mean sinners have free will. The issue of the sinner’s “free will” is not whether he acts freely in choosing what he wishes; it is whether he is able, by nature, to make proper choices. If, by the use of the term “free will,” a person means the sinner chooses what he desires voluntarily and apart from external compulsion, then, of course, we believe in free will, though we would prefer the term “free agency.” If he means the sinner possesses, by nature, the same ability to choose Christ in the gospel as to reject him, then, of course, we must disagree. Regarding the ill-advised usage of the term “free will” John Calvin wrote,

In this way, then, man is said to have free will, not because he has a free choice of good and evil, but because he acts voluntarily, and not by compulsion. This is perfectly true: but why should so small a matter have been dignified with so proud a title?

(John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book II, Chapter II, #7)

Instead of producing passages without end that indicate sinners are without spiritual ability to make right choices, I will simply ask, what do sinners always do when presented with truth? In other words, I am asking not what sinners Can do but what do sinners invariably do as long as they continue in a state of sinful nature?

In Romans 1:18, the apostle Paul tells us that God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Wherever and whenever sinners encounter truth, they will invariably suppress it and turn from it. Later in the same chapter he wrote concerning sinners in a state of nature, “who knowing God’s decree that those who practice such acts of unrighteousness are worthy of death no only go on practicing such things, but take pleasure in those who do them.” The Psalmist wrote, “The wicked through the pride of his countenance will not seek after God. God is not in all his thoughts” (Psa. 10:4).

John wrote, “This is the condemnation that light has come into the world and men loved darkness rather than the light. And everyone who practices evil hates the light and refuses to come to the light lest his deeds be reproved” (John 3:19-20).

Would a person not think that if someone who had experienced death should return to give a first hand account of the afterlife, his hearers would immediately give him a serious hearing and make a free will decision to repent and believe? Yet, Abraham said, “They [the rich man’s five brothers] have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them. If they will not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should return from the dead (Luke 16: 29-31).

Would not a person think that if sinners possessed the ability to repent and believe they would certainly do so to be delivered from horrible anguish and pain? Yet, the book of the revelation informs us that when sinners are plagued by fire, fierce heat, huge hailstones, and darkness so that they gnawed their tongues in anguish, “They did not repent and give him [God] the glory.” (Rev. 16:9).

The issue in this discussion is not freedom of choice, but the state of sinners by nature. Consider how the apostle Paul described unconverted Gentiles. He wrote,

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity (Eph. 4: 17-19).

These verses clearly teach that the intellect has been darkened by sin, the emotions have become hardened by sin and because of the depravity of their nature they have given themselves up [an act of the will] to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.

Here is the question: According to the Scriptures, when sinners, acting according to sinful nature, choose what they truly desire, what do they invariably choose?

There are two Psalms that tell us what God actually saw when he looked down from heaven, contrary to those who claim he chose those whom he foresaw would, by their free will decision, seek him and obey the gospel.

Based on his understanding of Psalms 14 and 53, the apostle Paul wrote, “as it is written: “None is righteous, no not, one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:11-12).

2 Responses to “Is the Sinner’s will truly free?”

  1. August 16, 2012 at 12:37 am

    One of the best prectical demonstrations of this matter of free will I heard from RC Sproul. In the story of Alice in Wonderland, she has a meeting with the Cheshire cat at a fork in the road. The Cat tells her that she may choose which way to go. And she can. She can choose as easily to go to the right as to the left. However, Alice is only “free” to choose from amongst choices that are (an this is the operative word) actually available to her. In other words, she may choose to go left. Or she may choose to go right. But what she is NOT free to choose is to flap her arms and go straight up! She is free to chose, but only amongst options that are actually available to her.

    I expound on this a bit by saying that man is free to choose, but only from among options that he can actually see or sense in some way. I can see the left hand path. And I can see the right hand path. But as a sinner, I cannot see the path that leads to rigteousness because I cannot see righteousness at all. Righteousness is an attribute of God, and, being spiritually dead, I cannot see him unless he first reveals Himself to me. Scripture is awash of this kind of eye opening; from the way God revealed Himself to the Israelites (who were not looking for Hm), to Jesus opening Paul’s eyes on the road to Damascus, to Lydia, to the Eunuch reading Isaiah by the stream.

    In that last case, look carefully at how Peter approaches his evangelical task; the first thing is does is not to conclude from the fact that since the fellow is reading the book of Isaiah that he is therefore a believer. He first asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?

    In other words, he wants to know of the man BELIEVES, or only reads. ANy man may choose to read. Lots do. But not everyone who reads believes what he is reading.

    I furthermore question how much control we have over what we believe. We seem to weigh evidence and come to conclusions, but human nature is full of examples of how we seem to believe first, and then rationalize our choices afterwards. We hear and immediately believe or disbelieve. Then we set about clarifying and fortifying our decisions. So I do not really believe that man is free to choose, nor is he even free to believe whatever he decides upon.

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