Does Every Man have a Free Will? Is Man's Will Free or Bound? Which is it? Was Pharoah free to let God's people go from Egypt? Was David free to turn away from Bathsheba? Was Cyrus free to send Israel home? Was Paul free to believe in Jesus? Am I free to write this article? Is Boris Johnson free to sign an agreement with Joe Biden? If you answer yes or no, you're correct to any of the above because a man's will is both bound and yet free!
Chapter 9 of the 1689 Confession, “Of Free Will,” seeks to unravel and explain this complex issue that’s in our sights. We’ll strive for simplicity, accuracy and practicality as we work our way through the five paragraphs of this chapter. Observe the clear, logical flow:
I. The Certain Reality of Man’s Free Agency (Paragraph 1)
A. God foreordains all things without coercing the will of any man.
B. Man is free to will only according to his heart disposition.
II. The Fourfold States of Man’s Free Agency - A man’s will can only express the disposition of the man’s heart.
A. Man in the Innocent State (Paragraph 2) - Adam’s pre-fall condition.
*Heart Disposition - Righteous and Upright (yet liable to change)
1. Ability to Please God
2. Potential to sin against God
B. Man in a Fallen State (Paragraph 3) - Adam’s post-fall condition.
*Heart Disposition - Unholy and Sinful
1. Ability only to Sin Against God
2. No Ability to Please God
C. Man in a Regenerate State (Paragraph 4) - The born-again saint.
*Heart Disposition - Righteous and Upright (yet imperfect)
1. Ability to Please God (Holy Spirit)
2. Ability to Sin against God (Indwelling Sin)
D. Man in a Glorified State (Paragraph 5) - The finally perfected saint.
*Heart Disposition - Righteous and Upright (Confirmed)
1. Ability to Please God
2. No Ability to Sin against God
Let’s walk our way through the thinking of these paragraphs:
I. The Certain Reality of Human Free Agency - Paragraph #1
A. God Fore-Ordains all things, without coercing the will of any man.
Mysteriously, the Scriptures teach that both divine sovereignty and human agency are true. God sovereignly determines the outcome of even the most seemingly insignificant details, like whether the dice come up as 7 or 11. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is of the Lord (Prov. 16:33). He also micromanages the massive historical swings in world empires, like Persian King Cyrus’s decree to send Israel home from his Babylonian exile. “I make know the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘my purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please’” (Is. 46:10). Cyrus decreed all that was in his heart. He freely willed it. But it was God who decreed and determined it!
So yesterday, if the Barista at Starbucks gave me an extra shot of espresso in my coffee cup, was it her free will, or was it God’s sovereign predetermination? It was both -- mysteriously and wonderfully! Chapter 3, paragraph 1 of the Confession is correct: “God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass; yet . . . no violence is offered to the will of the creature.”
Man is always responsible for his own choices and actions and worthy of blame or approval on judgment day. Herod, Pontius Pilate, and the Gentiles did whatever they wanted to Jesus in killing Him, but it was all by the foreknowledge and predestination of God (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). Man is never just a passive victim of a higher coercive power -- a pawn in the fingers of an almighty chess-master. God is never an agent in sin. He tempts no one (Jas. 1:13-14). Divine Sovereignty and human responsibility descend as two strands of truth from heaven. We can’t fully comprehend how they are logically braided together in the mind and universe of God, but they are!
B. Man is Free to Will Only According to His Heart Disposition.
So a man is free to will whatever he desires, but his will can only choose in keeping with its nature. The Bible makes much of this. Jesus gives three verbal pictures in Mt 12:33-27 regarding a tree that has fruit (v33), a treasure chest that has contents (v35), and a Fountain that has an outflow (34). There are no surprises here, as nature determines its product. An orange tree produces oranges. Out of Fort Knox comes gold. From a petrol pump flows petroleum. So good things flow from a good man’s heart and evil things from an evil man’s heart (v34). A man’s heart is a complex motivational and dispositional complex of mind, emotion, and desires that eventually wills what it wants to do. Moral choices are inextricably wired into the root system of the heart.
Walter Chantry makes a NASA Space technology analogy: “If a man’s mission control is wired for evil, the will cannot make the rockets of life travel on the path of righteousness. The ‘Will’ may be the button that launches the spacecraft. But the launching button does not determine the direction. The direction is dependent on the complex wiring system.” (Man’s Will -- Bound Yet Free, BOT, p5).
So every man is enslaved and bound to express and function according to his heart disposition. Men choose to sin because they are sinners. Bats choose the night because they are bats who love darkness. Houseflies are drawn to the lightbulb. That’s why people harm others, do impure things, steal and lie. The will cannot function contrary to the heart disposition.
II. The Fourfold States of Man's Free Agency - Paragraphs 2-5 - Each spiritual state has a unique condition of the heart.
A. Man in the Innocent State (Adam Pre-Fall) - Paragraph #2
Adam came fashioned by the fingertips and breath of God with a heart disposition of contingent righteousness and uprightness. Contingent means that Adam was liable to change. Before the fall, Adam had the heart ability to please God and the potential to sin against God.
Consider Adam’s makeup. He had a good heart (“very good” Gen 1:31), with a moral inclination and dispositional complex of love to God. But Adam was mutable, moldable, like unfired pottery. Adam was also under probation (Gen 2:16-17), so he was able to obey. But lapsing was a possibility, as displayed in the presence of the tree of knowledge. Clearly, Adam was vulnerable to temptation, as exposed by the seducing serpent (3:1f); and he was capable of sinning, as Eve saw what was a delight to the eyes, what was desirable to make wise, and she took and ate and gave to Adam (3:6).
The citation is telling: “God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices” (Eccl 7:29).
So pre-fall Adam was able to sin and able not to sin. Theoretically, if he would have obeyed, he would have entered a fixed state (like fired pottery) of not-being-able-to-sin. But Adam’s act of free will refused God’s offer of an eternal fellowship and chose death and condemnation instead. Tragic! And lest we listen to the hiss of the snake and ever think the almighty and infinite sovereign God is playing coercive games with human pawns, I invite you to Golgotha where we can hear the cry of His beloved Son’s dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me” (Mt. 27:46)? No, not a game!
B. Man in a Fallen State - (Sons and Daughters of Adam) - Paragraph #3
Adam surely died. He and all his offspring now come from the womb with a heart disposition that’s unholy and sinful, able only to sin against God, without any ability to please God -- yes, even the most innocent and sweet looking newborn. We’re all conceived in sin (Ps 51:5). None of us is righteous, not even one. None seek after God (Rom 3:10-18), leaving us dead in sin (Eph. 2:1), helpless and without any ability to choose or draw near to God (Rom. 5:6), void of any heart pulse to submit ourselves to the God whom we refuse to fear, and heartily hate (Rom. 8:7-8).
But the gracious gospel offers hell-bound sinners a restoration of fellowship with God, the provision of free justification in Christ, along with an easy yoke and a burden that’s light. Who would reject such an offer? All of us! When our golden retriever dog, Copper, was hit by a car, she instantly died, leaving no pulse. She couldn’t respond to the sweetest treat or most succulent prime rib. We sinners, left to ourselves, are spiritually dead to God, cannot please Him, and are without the capacity or will to respond positively to gospel overtures. Does a sinner choose God? It’s not going to happen! You might as well ask a bat to choose a sun-splashed beach. A sinner’s will is bound to an evil heart that hates God, detests His demands, scoffs at His judgment to come, and despises his Son’s blood.
A fallen sinner can’t change himself any more than an Ethiopian can change the colour of his skin, or a leopard can change his spots (Jer. 13:23). No one can come to Jesus unless the Father first sovereignly and irresistibly draws him (John 6:44, 65).
John Murray is right: “Man in his natural state is psychologically, morally, and spiritually incapable of the understanding, affection and will which enable him to be subject to the law of God, respond to the gospel of His grace, appreciate the things of the Spirit of God, or do the things well-pleasing to Him. Neither understanding, nor affection, nor will is capable of rendering that response which is appropriate to and required by the relation of God's will in law and gospel." (Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Eerdmans, pp 85-86).
This is very contrary to the Pelagian view that says sinners’ hearts are clones of Adam’s in Eden, where he could both please and sin against God, and also contrary to the Arminian view claiming a mist of prevenient grace neutralises a fallen heart when the gospel is offered, temporarily enabling the sinner to will to believe, if he chooses. No! No matter how persuasive and entertaining our evangelism techniques, a spiritually dead heart can’t choose God. But God can raise the dead!
C. Man in a Regenerate State (The Born Again Saint) - Paragraph #4
The new birth (regeneration, conversion) brings radical change to the heart of a spiritually dead sinner. He’s made alive (Eph. 2:5), becomes a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), gets a circumcised heart (Rom. 2:29) that ignites a new beat of the will which delights in submitting to God (Phil. 2:13). Conversion brings to the saint the new ability to freely do spiritual good, so that he’s no longer a slave to sin but a servant of Christ (Jn. 8:34, 36; Col. 1:13). Saul could now believe the gospel and became Paul (Acts 9). Joseph could now rebuff the seductions of Mrs Potiphar’s perfume and negligee (Gen. 39:7-13).
But though the heart change of regeneration is radical, it’s not perfect. In the born again saint there remain the corruptions of indwelling sin, so that he does not perfectly will or do good, but also occasionally falls back into old sins: “For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish” (Rom. 7:19). David sinned with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11; Ps. 51). Peter denied his Lord Jesus multiple times (Lk. 22). The flesh still lusts after the Spirit (Gal. 5:17).
John Owen speaks truth to born again Christians: “There are traitors in our hearts, ready to take part, to close, and side with every temptation, and to give up all to them; yea, to solicit and bribe temptations to do the work, as traitors incite an enemy. Do not flatter yourselves that you shall hold out; there are secret lusts that lie lurking in our hearts, which perhaps now stir not, which, as soon as any temptation befalls you, will rise, tumultuate, cry, disquiet, seduce, and never give over until they are either killed or satisfied” (BOT, vol 6, p 105).
This reality that the regenerate man has the power of contrary choice, the ability to choose good in harmony with the Spirit, and to do evil in succumbing to indwelling sin, urges us to avoid three significant errors: 1) Perfectionism - the idea that in this life a Christian can reach a plateau of spirituality that he no longer sins (Methodism, Holiness Movement). 2) Passivism - the idea that “letting go and letting God,” suspending the activity of our wills, instead of fighting a good fight, is the formula for living the “successful” Christian life (Higher Life, Keswick movement). 3) Easy-Believism - the idea that salvation from hell can be enjoyed by a soul that has been left unchanged by a heart conversion, teaching that someone can have Jesus as Saviour, but not necessarily as Lord (The Four Spiritual Laws).
D. Man in a Glorified State (The Finally Perfected State) - Paragraph #5
About six months ago, my 86 year old mother, Dorothy Chanski-Martin, died in Christ. Within a couple of days of her last breath, she lamented the tempting allurements of indwelling sin. Even with the death dew cold on her brow, she whispered to me: “I can see how people are tempted to disobey God, to take something to just end it all. But I don’t want to disobey and dishonour my Lord.” But around 5am on Dec 1 of 2020 she breathed her last in this world, and was then awakened by her Lord, who said to her: “Talitha kum, . . . Little girl, get up” (Mark 5:41).
Then, in her glorified state, she reached perfection, having attained “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). Her heart was now fixed, fired like pottery, with a confirmed heart disposition, a will that’s free with the ability to please God, and void of the ability to sin against God. She is now in a state superior to unstable Adam in Eden, for Dorothy in Paradise (Lk. 23:43), and men and women with Christ in glory, are not only good but also stable, forever (Heb. 13:23; 1 Jn. 3:10).
Spurgeon asks: “Have you, like Bunyan’s Christian, fought with old Apollyon, and have you seen him flap his dragon-wings, and fly away? There you had a foretaste of heaven; you had just a hint of what the ultimate victory will be.” (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol 8, p426). Ah, what a joy it will be when that heel snapping black dog of indwelling sin will be shot dead at heaven’s gate! Worthy is the Lamb to be praised!
Friday 25th June 2021