As we wrestle through the hard texts of Romans 9, we inevitably bump up against the question of free will. Everyone who has ever wrestled with predestination wonders how exactly God can be sovereign and at the same time humans can be truly free. This is a powerful question and one that requires careful thought. In this post I will attempt to offer some clarifications that may be helpful.
But first let me offer some insight into how to read my writing. I take my responsibility as a teacher of God’s word very seriously, knowing that I will be held to a stricter judgment (James 3:1). And I place a high value on biblical truth and on the fear of God and his glory as the starting point of wisdom and knowledge (Prov. 1:7; Psalm 119:98-99). For this reason, my writing tends to have a very direct tone. I would plead with you not to interpret this direct-ness as a lack of charity or kindness. Rather, please hear in it the longing of a pastor and “older brother” in the faith who has worn a path of 10 years of prayerful study on these issues. The major texts of Scripture on these subjects are worn into my memory. Additionally, my shelf bears copiously underlined volumes from Augustine, Luther, Edwards, Owen, Calvin, Packer, Piper, Sproul, Frame, Arminius, Wesley, Pinnock, Sanders, Geisler, and others. So please know that there is no question being asked that I have not asked myself, and no verse being quoted that I have not studied. When one has delved deeply into the richness of God’s word and the breadth of historical theology on a subject, his depth of conviction grows along with his (sometimes sinful) impatience toward those who would “want to be teachers… even though they do not understand the matters about which they make confident assertions” (1 Tim 1:7).
Now, to the issue of free will. Objectors to doctrines like election are quick to defend “free will” without reasoning clearly about 1) the limits of human freedom, and 2) the nature of human freedom. Proper thinking about these two matters will clear up a lot of ambiguity.
1) The limits of human freedom. To put it simply, humans are not absolutely free. They are contingently free. You are not free to fly. You are not free to lay eggs. You are not free to exhaustively know everything in the universe. Simply put, you are free to act as a human, within the boundaries that God has placed on human freedom. This is true in the physical realm (i.e. flying) and in the moral/spiritual realm (responding to God’s grace and making moral/ethical choices).
Most objectors to God’s sovereign grace in salvation assume a libertarian view of freedom: all humans are free to choose either good or evil, at any time, with no conditions. However, this sort of freedom is never taught in the Bible. God is the only being who is free in a libertarian sense – free to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. John Frame points out that “in heaven, the consummate state of human existence, we will not be free to sin. So the highest state of human existence will be a state without libertarian freedom.”
2) The nature of human freedom. St. Augustine was the first theologian to think deeply and biblically about the nature of human freedom. Augustine was first and foremost a consummate student of Scripture. He knew that the Bible held humans, not God, responsible for sin, and that the Bible very clearly taught that humans were free to exercise their wills – indeed, God would hold them accountable for their own free choices. He recognized that somehow, God’s sovereignty and human free will must be compatible.
Based on his study of Scripture and his common-grace insight into human nature, Augustine saw that the human will is not an entity in itself. It is an aspect of our total being, and it is only exercised in accordance with our desires. In Augustine’s words, “there is no ability whatever in free will to believe, unless there be persuasion or summons towards some one in whom to believe.” To will something requires that I desire to will it. (Though I am free to eat at all times, I only do so when I desire food because I am hungry). So Augustine reasoned that freedom consisted in doing what one wants to do. In his own words, “I am free with respect to any action… to the extent that my wanting and choosing to perform that action are sufficient for my performing it.”
Augustine rightly saw that the grace of God in regeneration changes the desires of the human heart. Grace does not create free will, as though true freedom did not exist before salvation. Rather, grace changes our desires, so that we now want Christ (whereas before regeneration, we did not want him). So salvation is entirely and totally a work of God, because without God’s intervention we would never desire Him. And yet faith is really and truly our faith, for (moved by new desires) we trust in Christ as an act of our own free will.
A right understanding of of total depravity is rooted in this foundational work of St. Augustine. Human beings have true freedom. But because our hearts are depraved, our free will is always inclined away from God. Only the regenerating grace of God can incline the human heart toward God! Martin Luther (a more colorful and creative writer than Augustine) put it this way: “A man without the Spirit of God does not do evil against his will, under pressure, as though he were taken by the scruff of the neck and dragged into it… he does it spontaneously and voluntarily. And this willingness or volition is something which he cannot in his own strength eliminate, restrain, or alter.”
It is a misunderstanding of election to say that God’s electing grace removes human free will from the equation. Human free will is essential in salvation, and yet salvation is totally and fully a work of God from beginning to end. It is not true that an emphasis on the sovereignty of God diminishes human free will. Rather, a correct definition of free will, rooted in the Bible’s teaching, shows how human free will can be both truly free and in bondage to sin at the same time.