Free Will
By Paul Robison

Martha was trying once to get a meal prepared for Jesus, and her sister, Mary, wasn’t offering much help, so she told Jesus to tell her to help her.  Jesus gave this reply: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things.  But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42).  What had Mary done?  Jesus says that she had chosen to listen to Him.  Was Mary’s choice to listen something that she did of her own will or was some outside influence working on her?  This may sound like a strange question, but remember the times.  “In the earliest Greek mythology, [there was] the conception of the Fates, three goddesses weaving the web of destiny in which all mankind is caught and from which we cannot free ourselves. ... Here no place is left for anything like free will on the part of man.  Man is a [puppet] whose every action is controlled and determined by the pull of the hands of the powers far above and beyond him” (Frost).  The Grecian outlook, however, was in place about 300 years before Mary came on the scene.  The outlook of those who wrote the Gospels did not follow the Grecian concept.  Their outlook has been described in this way: “Man can make a choice which will determine forever his destiny.  This choice is real and eternal.  Thus, the freedom of man is real in that it enables him to determine his estate forever” (Frost).  This is an ancient example.  Now let’s fast forward to our era.  “A well-known psychologist was asked, 'Many people believe that children are basically “good” and only learn to do wrong from their parents and culture.  Do you agree?'  He responded: '... if they believe that children are by nature unselfish, giving, and sinless before God, I must disagree. ...  [The] record of evil makes it difficult to hold to the pollyannish view that children are pure and holy at birth and merely learn to do wrong from their misguided parents.'  Is it really 'pollyannish' to believe that a newborn infant has no sin?  What could be more pure and holy than someone who has just begun life as God's creature?  A totally opposite view comes from a prominent German scholar in his book titled Is Original Sin in Scriptures?  Herbert Haag's answer is a firm 'No!'  He wrote in his opening paragraph: 'The doctrine of original sin is not found in any of the writings of the Old Testament.   It is certainly not found in chapters one through three of Genesis.'  He argues that the idea of putting Adam's guilt on all of his descendants is not in the Bible” (Hazelip).

The topic for our lesson could be stated in a question: “Does the New Testament teach determinism or free will?”  Determinism teaches that “man’s choices are determined by some outside force independent of a person’s will” (like the Fates or original sin), but free will claims that a person chooses a course of action without external coercion but in accordance with a person’s ideals or the moral outlook” (like Mary acted) (Webster).  “The term ‘free will’ is not biblical, but derives from Stoicism.  It was introduced into [our thinking] by the second-century [apologist named] Tertullian, [who had a gift for coining new theological terms.]” (McGrath).  This concept is a very important one among religious groups even today.  We want to take a historical perspective in answering this question.  We’ll look at free will or individual choice in modern history (which we’ll call from 1500 to the present), then we’ll look at ancient history (which we’ll call 100-1500), then we’ll look at what the apostles’ teachings, and then we’ll look at Jesus’ teachings.

Let’s look at free will or individual choice in modern history.  In 1995, a new catechism for the Catholic Church was written, and here is what it says with regards to original sin and free will: “… Adam has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the ‘death of the soul.’ … Still, the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. … By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state.  It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice … [It is] a state and not an act” (Ratzinger, Catechism of the Catholic Church, ‘95).  Notice what is affirmed here: man is born afflicted in a state of sin; Adam’s personal sin somehow is mysteriously transmitted to each person at birth; we are deprived of original holiness and justice (notice it does say “totally deprived”; this is an important difference between the Catholic outlook and the Protestant outlook).  Now does that sound like we have free will?  No, the cards are pretty stacked against us, aren’t they?  This same outlook was presented at the Council of Trent which took place in 1545.  They said that Adam’s sin by propagation, not imitation, is transfused into all people, and all who don’t believe this viewpoint are accursed!  Did you know that this position of a stacked deck is believed also by many evangelicals?  Listen to this statement made by an evangelical writer: “The Catholic church also teaches [as do evangelicals] that Adam’s sin and its consequences are transmitted to his descendants by inheritance, not by example …” (Geisler and MacKenzie).  Well, from where do many of our evangelical neighbors get such a belief?  It goes back to a controversy between two men named John Calvin and Jacob Arminius.  John Calvin (1509-1564) [was] a French theologian influential in the Protestant Reformation.  His best known writing is The Institutes of the Christian Religion where the foundations for the concept of total depravity at birth were first presented in 1536.  This concept has been described in this way by two Baptist ministers: “Because of the fall, man is unable of himself to savingly believe the gospel.  He is dead, blind, and deaf to the things of God; his heart is deceitful and desperately corrupt.  His will is not free, it is in bondage to his [sinful] nature [Remember this term used earlier?], therefore, he will not – indeed cannot – chose good over evil in the spiritual realm.  Consequently, it takes much more than the Spirit’s assistance to bring a sinner to Christ – it takes [direct] regeneration by which the Spirit makes the sinner alive and gives him a new nature” (Steele and Thomas).  On the other hand, Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) was a Dutch professor of theology at Leiden University who took issue with Calvin’s outlook.  His position has been summarized in this way: “Although human nature was seriously affected by the fall, man has not been left in a state of total spiritual helplessness.  God graciously enables every sinner to repent and believe, but he does not interfere with man’s freedom.  Each sinner possesses a free will, and his eternal destiny depends on how he uses it.  Man’s freedom consists of his ability to choose good over evil in spiritual matters; his will is not enslaved to his sinful nature.  The sinner has the power to either cooperate with God’s Spirit and be regenerated or resist God’s grace and perish.  The lost sinner needs the Spirit’s assistance, but he does not have to be directly regenerated by the Spirit before he can believe, for faith is man’s act and precedes the new birth” (Steele and Thomas).  Did you know that the Arminian-Calvin conflict became so severe that it led the Netherlands to the brink of civil war, and a special Synod was convened in 1618 to determine what would be the official religion?  Calvinism was accepted.  One brother in the Lord made this observation: “... John Calvin laid down principles which have influenced a large part of the Protestant world until today” (Maddox).  His “reformed theology” is seen in Baptist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian denominations.  Let’s review just a minute again: Calvin said that a man was totally depraved at birth since he inherited Adam’s sin, and cannot make any changes until he has been regenerated by God’s Spirit [and this happens only if he is a part of God’s elect].  Armininus said that man has a free will, which can cooperate with God’s Spirit, and he has the ability to come toward God in obedient faith.

Now let’s look at free will or individual choice in ancient history.  Another controversy arose which might be called the Augustine-Pelagius controversy.  Their views have been described in this way:  “The conception of individual freedom was denied by Augustine [354-430].  According to him, mankind was free in Adam, but since Adam chose to sin, he lost freedom not only or himself but for all men and for all time.  Now no one is free, but all are bound to sin, are salves of evil.  But God makes a choice among men of those whom he will save and those whom He will permit to be destroyed because of sin.  This choice is not influenced by any act of any individual man, but is determined only by what God wants. ... Adam's sin, for Augustine, became hereditary, with the result that the future of every man is completely determined from the beginning of time” (Frost).  On the other hand, a monk named Pelagius [360-420] “taught that God had given freedom to man so that he may make a choice between good and evil.  Each man makes his own choice, but he retains his freedom of choice.  Thus, he may turn away from sin by an act of free will, repudiate evil, and receive divine forgiveness” (Frost).  In 431, the corrupted State Church held its third ecumenical council and determined to uphold Augustine’s view. 

What did the apologists and Christian leaders have to say on free will and original sin?  One writer responds: “Jesus, the Apologists  believed, came to save man from sin.  But sin implies guilt on the part of man, and guilt is meaningless unless man is in some way responsible for his sin.  You cannot hold a man as guilty of an act unless he is able to act differently.  Thus, only if man is free to choose can he be condemned for his sin.  If man has sinned, he must be free” (Frost).  One church historian remarked about these church fathers: “All the fathers in this period teach the universality of sin.  They hold to a remaining capacity for right action [observe: man has the ability to do right], and they do not affirm the absolute impotence of the fallen will ... The fathers ... bring in self determination of the individual as the condition of his guilt” (Turner quoting Fisher).  Another writer made this observation: “… Greek patristic writers [of the second and third centuries] do not express this fall in terms of the doctrine of original sin, such as that which would later be associated with Augustine.  Most Greek writers insisted that sin arises from an abuse of the human free will. … The idea of transmitted guilt, a central feature of Augustine’s later doctrine of original sin, is totally absent from the Greek patristic tradition” (McGrath).  Several writings, like those of Hermas in 130, Aristides in 140, and Iraeneus in 185 show that these church leaders saw babies and children as being born innocent and having no sense of evil.

Alright, we have seen how important determinism and free will have been debated over the centuries by various people.  But the real question is: “What do the apostles and Jesus teach on this issue?”  So now, let’s get back to the New Testament; let’s see what the apostles’ teach with regards to free will or individual choice.  “All children grow up and commit sin. Why?  Where does the urge to do wrong originate? … The process that leads to sin is outlined in James 1:13-15.  The first point is that God never leads us into sin: '... God cannot be tempted by evil nor does He Himself tempt anyone' ( Jam. 1:13).  Then James explains how sin originates: 'But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed' (v. 14).  Our desires are not necessarily either good or evil; they can go either way. ... We all know the struggle.  We have an inner desire to be honest and true, but it fights with another desire to be successful and powerful.  When the lower urge succeeds, sin results.  When the higher motivation maintains itself, we avoid sin.  Or, as James explained, 'Then when  desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death' (v. 15).  Sin arises out of choice.  It is not something we inherit; it is something we do” (Hazelip).  Paul tells us that sin grows out of ingratitude (Rom. 1:21ff) and that it involves a perverse will ( Rom. 12:2).  John shows that sin is transgressing the law (1 John 3:4), and it is self-love (3 John 9-10).  All of these passages show us that sin involves an act of our free will, and it is not a state.  “Yes, but doesn’t Romans 5 say that we inherit a state of sin?”  Let’s look at Romans 5:18: “Therefore, as through one man’s offence [Adam] judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life.  For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”  This is a summary statement, so we must be careful not to read into it more than is there.  Is Paul saying that Christ’s death automatically gave all humans a right standing with God, apart from a faith response?  No, Paul is saying that with Christ’s death, there is now a potential for all to have a right standing in God’s sight.  Likewise, this is not teaching that Adam’s sin automatically caused man’s condemnation, but each person has had the potential to sin made very real.  “Well,” another might object and say, “doesn’t Eph. 2:3 teach that we are children of wrathMy Bible says, ‘All of us lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts” (NIV).  First of all, we did NOT become children of wrath by inheriting Adam’s sinful nature.  In fact, the opening verses of chapter 2 show how we became children of wrath.  It was because “we walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit which now works in the sons of disobedience.”  Our disobedience and wicked living, prompted by the world and Satan, have caused us to be children of wrath.  Second, the translators of the version that was being used have steered you wrongly as well.  This version was composed mainly of evangelicals, and, as we have already seen, most evangelicals follow the tenants of Calvin.  So instead of translating “cravings of our sinful flesh” as the original has, they translate it “craving of our sinful nature” to harmonize with their reformed theology.  Let’s go back to James again and note 1:16-18: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren.  Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and come down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.  Of His own will, He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.”  God did not bring us forth or bring about our conversions through the Holy Spirit’s direct regeneration but by the word of truth, by the preaching of the Gospel.  One commentator puts it this way: “The idea of a direct operation of the Spirit, acting in some mysterious way apart from the world of truth is not a Bible idea.  A confidence that one is ‘saved’ gained from some subjective feeling apart from obedience to God’s word is not the assurance that the New Testament gives of pardon” (Roberts).  Each of us will be judged at the end based on how we have chosen to live our lives, not on how God has predestined us to live it.  2 Corinthians 5:10 affirms: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”  It is according to what we had done, not according to what God has determined.  Let’s review.  The apostles teach us that sin is not something we inherit; it is something we do.  Adam’s sin is not transmitted to us, and we are not children of wrath because his sinful nature is causing our downfall.  We are converted through the word of truth or hearing the Gospel proclaimed, and we ourselves must give an account before Christ of the deeds that we have done while living on this earth.

Now let’s look briefly at what Jesus has to say, and we’ll see that it in no way contradicts what the apostles have taught.  The disciples once came to Jesus asking Him who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, and He replied in Matt. 18:4: “Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”  Now how could Jesus use this child as a splendid example of humility if he was totally depraved through original sin?  Jesus closed His famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7 by saying that those who do not put His teaching into practice are like a foolish person who builds his house upon sand, but those who put His teachings into practice are like a wise man who builds his house upon rock.  Does that sound like He is asking us to make a choice?  A Pharisee once came to Jesus by night and Jesus challenges him to be born again by the water and the Spirit.  “Ah, someone might say, the new birth.  Did you choose to be born?  No, it was chosen for you.  Just as your parents chose to have you, so God chooses to cause new birth to those that He has predestined.”  Physical birth does involved parents, but spiritual birth is not a predestined matter.  How can we know that?  Well, notice what Jesus says just a few verses later in verse 14: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever [did you catch that, it means anyone who chooses, not just those God has determined] believes in should not perish but have eternal life.”  Jesus once told a group to repent in Luke 13:3: “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”  Why did Jesus make such a statement if these people’s conduct was already determined by God?  This same logic might be applied to our reading today: Why did Jesus give the Pharisees such a scathing rebuke in Matthew 23 if they were already predestined by God to do what they were doing?  Jesus, later in His ministry, tells His apostles that He has to go to Jerusalem to die, and He challenges them to carry a cross as well.  One scholar noted: “To turn back now would be to save their lives in the short term, but it would mean the losing of their lives in the light of the final assessment, which would lie with the Son of Man Himself.  Nearly 2000 years later, as we look back on their decision, we can make a provisional and limited assessment of our own.  Their decision was the right one.  If they had turned back then, nothing more would have been heard of them.  They counted the cost and continued to follow Jesus, and their memory is honored to this day” (Bruce).  We honor them because their decision was made through their own choosing; it was not forced.  Jesus also taught that men would be judged based on their own works: “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:28).  So, we see that Jesus teaches that children are not tainted by depravity, that His listeners and His disciples can exercise their free will to choose to practice His teachings and follow His lifestyle, that people should use their free will to believe in Him and to repent of their sins, and that we each are accountable for how we live in this world, and those behaviors will determine our final eternal destiny. 

Listen carefully!  One brother has observed: “The conclusion is irresistible that if God decrees everything that comes to pass, as the Calvinistic creed avers, the responsibility of Adam’s act was not with him but with the Lord.  Every act, whatever its character, must according to this doctrine, be chargeable to the Lord.  In this view, man is but an instrument in the hands of Jehovah and deserves no commendation for the good that he does or condemnation for the evil he causes” (Woods).  Determinism not only puts the blame on God but also it takes away one’s personality.  Another brother comments: “To continue under these conditions would leave a person no more than a machine or like a patient under hypnosis controlled by the will of another.  Without real choice, human nature would lack personality and maturity; a person would be like a baby ...” ( Ferguson ).  Think about this: “What is the difference in saying that Fate determines your actions or God determines them?”  Either way, one has failed to uphold what the apostles and Jesus taught if they believe in determinism!