Friday, February 11, 2011

Let Go Of My Ego

To listen to many pastors and preachers these days, you’d think that every page of the Bible resounded with affirmations of Free-will. The way that term is bandied around from the pulpit, you’d expect to find the Scripture saying things like:
“It is not of God that shows mercy, but of him that wills, and of him that runs.” (cf. Rom 9:16);
“Which were born, not of the will of God, but of the will of man.” (cf. Jn. 1:13);
“For you make yourself to differ from another, and you willed to receive what you have. (cf. 1 Cor. 4:7)

But when I read my Bible, whether in the venerable old King James Version, the ESV, or the NIV, NASB, TEV, (you get the picture), I read assertions to the opposite effect. Just look up the actual wording of the Scriptures cited above.

Before I rush off into my diatribe against Arminian free-willers, let me first clarify that I am referring to free-will in the unregenerate. This is clearly the issue. Many people unquestioningly assume that fallen man has an intact power of free-will by which he can choose to accept Christ and that only once he had done so, will God grant His grace. “God helps those who help themselves.” This is what I flatly deny.

I would never stoop to the stupid argument that the Bible nowhere uses the term “Free-will” (it doesn’t), because the Scripture doesn’t use the terms Trinity, Hypostatic Union, or Eschatology, though it clearly teaches these concepts. So just because a term isn’t used in Scripture, this doesn’t mean that the idea isn’t there. I’m simply saying that the idea of a bound will is to be found in all throughout Scripture, written in black and red (or should say ‘black and blue’?).

The Scripture record is so stacked against the notion of free-will that it is a wonder any thinking Christian could ever broach it with a straight face. The Bible, in fact, says we are in bondage (Rom. 8:15), we are slaves (Rom. 6:16-22). The Bible goes even farther and claims that outside of Christ, a man is dead. (Eph. 2:1). Think about that. Can a dead man will anything? Can he decide that he’d like to be resurrected? Yet this is the very supposition that Arminians make with respect to the unregenerate. The man who Scripture declares to be dead they declare has the ability to will to be resurrected. He can be made alive in Christ if he will only make the decision (read: will and run). Imagine standing in front of the casket of a dead man and saying, “If you’d like to be resurrected, raise your hand.” Yet few have any qualms about saying to sinners who equally dead, “If you want to go to heaven, make a decision for Jesus now.”

I am frequently met by puzzled looks when I say things like this, as if I were making up something that the Church has always known better than to believe. Jaws drop when I introduce them to these very concepts in the writings of the great teachers of the Church’s yesteryear. It is easy to pay lip service to an Augustine, a Luther, an Edwards or an Owen, while being completely ignorant of what they taught. Though their books may dutifully take up space on our shelves, few are ever opened, let alone read.

I said all that to set up a couple of astounding quotes. The first is from Augustine’s Enchiridion, On Faith, Hope and Love. He writes:
“For it was in the evil use of his free will that man destroyed himself and his will at the same time. For as a man who kills himself is still alive when he kills himself, but having killed himself is then no longer alive and cannot resuscitate himself after he has destroyed his own life--so also sin which arises from the action of the free will turns out to be victor over the will and the free will is destroyed. ‘By whom a man is overcome, to this one he then is bound as slave’ (2 Pet. 2:19)… What kind of liberty can one have who is bound as a slave except the liberty that loves to sin? He serves freely who freely does the will of his master. Accordingly he who is slave to sin is free to sin.” Enchiridion Ch.9.30

What Augustine is saying is fairly plain, it seems. Adam destroyed his free-will when he fell. Now all his descendants are slaves of sin. They can do nothing freely, but sin – which can hardly be called freedom.

The second quote is from Martin Luther. It comes from his book entitled The Bondage of the Will. In it, he attempts to further assert these Pauline doctrines that we have just read from Augustine. Luther goes to great lengths to show that Scripture everywhere asserts that man’s will is not free, but is in bondage to sin. In driving this point home, Luther shows that the term “free-will” itself is problematic. He writes, “Free-will is plainly a divine term, and can be applicable to none but the divine Majesty only: for He alone ‘does, (as the Psalm sings) what He will in Heaven and earth’ (Ps. 135:6). Whereas, if it be ascribed unto men, it is not more properly ascribed, than the divinity of God Himself would be ascribed unto them: which would be the greatest of all sacrilege.” (Section XXVI).

Luther thinks it would be better If theologians dropped the term all together because it so easily lends itself to wrong ideas about man’s innate abilities. Theologians sometimes use the term in an extremely technical sense, which grants men little more that the power to choose between a bowl of cereal or a waffle for breakfast. But when the term is used without caution, people begin to import into the term the false idea that the human will is not subject to anything or anyone.

Now what I have been trying to demonstrate by these quotes, among other things, is that a denial of free-will in the commonly used sense has always been the Church’s teaching. The logic of men like Finney, who argued that it was cruel of God to command things of sinners that they were unable to do, and then to threaten them with Hell for failing to obey – this logic is the same reasoning used by Pelagius, the heretic antagonist of Augustine. In fact, it is the logic of Paul’s opponents (Rom. 9:16-24).

So pastors and preachers, I implore you to stop telling sinners, “God gave you a free-will.” Salvation is not an act of human will. Salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9). Sinners are dead in sin and so is their will.


  1. Andy,

    As a Calvinist, I would agree with most (if not all) of what you've stated here, except that I find your statement "Salvation is not an act of human will" a bit problematic, or should I say, ambiguous.

    To me, it seems that you're saying that the whole of Salvation (including justification) does not include man's free choice of faith, which is rather absurd. Don't we, as evangelicals, believe in the doctrine of "justification by grace through faith"? Justification requires that man should put his faith in the finished work of Christ alone for Salvation. Now isn't faith an act of the will?

    It'd be more exact if you have said instead that God's eternal election of some unto Salvation (from which all saving graces flow) is not an act of nor a product of our own decision. In that sense Salvation is said to be of the Lord. Yet in justification, the sinner's free decision to repent and believe the Gospel is vitally essential, although no sinner would apart from the efficacious grace of God.

  2. Thanks for your clarifier, Jeph. Perhaps the wording was a tad ambiguous. The language of willing and decisions has so infected the Church, even in Reformed circles, that I try to steer as far from it as possible.



Visitor Counter

Flag Counter