Does Man Have a Free Will?
by Michael Gowens
"The carnal mind is enmity against God; for
it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be."
Man, created in Gods image,
possesses a mind, a heart, and a will. The mind, or intellect, allows him
to think rationally, not by sheer instinct like an animal. The heart, or
emotion, enables him to feel, unlike a robot or machine, human experience.
The will, or volition, enables him to make decisions and choices that have
moral consequences. It is his capacity for action, a capacity that allows
him to choose this over that and those instead of these.
In his unfallen state, man was
good and very good. The fall, however, affected every part of mans
being. Mans mind, by virtue of his fallen nature was darkened, incapable
of understanding the things of the Spirit of God (Ephesians 4:18; 1 Corinthians
2:14). Further, his emotions are now deceptive and untrustworthy (Jeremiah
17:9) and his will, that is, his ability to choose good over evil and right
over wrong, is bound. The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith reads,
"Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability
of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation, so as a natural man,
being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able by
his own strength to commit himself, or to prepare himself thereto."
So, is man free? If by the word "free" one means that
people have the ability to make certain choices on their own (i.e. free
from compulsion, force, or coercion), then the answer is "yes."
For example, people have the ability to choose to go to the store or stay
home, to buy a newspaper or not, to eat beef or to eat fish, etc.; such
choices are within the natural capacity of human beings. People are free
to act according to their nature.
If by the word "free", however, one means free without any limitation,
then the answer is "no." People are not free to act contrary to
their nature. I cannot choose to fly. Yes, I can choose to travel by airplane,
but I cannot choose to sprout wings or become a bird. My will, you see,
is not entirely free. It is bound by the limits of my nature. We do not
have the freedom to be anything we are not.
Man, in other words, is not free to act outside the boundaries of his human
nature. He cannot live the life of a fish in the ocean or fly like a bird
in the air without external resources enabling him to duplicate his natural
environment. Just as that is true on a natural level, it is also true on
a spiritual level. In his fallen state, man cannot choose to be righteous.
The Ethiopian cannot by his own sheer willpower, change the color of his
skin, nor the leopard his spots. Neither can those whose nature is depraved
voluntarily do good (Jeremiah 13:23). Mans will is enslaved to his
sinful nature. Left to himself, his only capacity is fleshly.
Unregenerate people are not free to choose righteousness or wickedness;
they are, on the contrary, "free from righteousness" (Romans 6:20).
By nature, mans will is a "will not" (Psalm 10:4; Psalm
58:3; John 5:40, Isaiah 26:10). His only inclination is toward carnality.
The natural man will never choose anything but sin, because he cannot operate
outside the parameters of his sinful nature (Romans 8:7). The nature of
mans will is not free.
Not until his nature is changed does he have the desire or the capacity
to choose righteousness. Prior to Gods work of regeneration in the
soul, therefore, mans will is bound by the old nature. In regeneration,
the fallen sinner is made "willing in the day of Gods power"
(Psalm 110:3). He is given a new nature, a righteous nature, capable of
responding to God. Because the old nature is not eradicated, however, a
warfare between the Spirit and the flesh ensues (Romans 7) - requiring deliberate
and decisive efforts of the will for righteousness (Romans 6:11-23). In
other words, the believer must choose, every day, between the options of
serving sin or righteousness (Joshua 24:15; Romans 6:13). With such a conflict
facing us, we should be glad that the Holy Spirit will continue to work
within us "both to will and to do His good pleasure"
Because mans will, apart from the new nature given in the new birth,
is bound, it is incapable of choosing eternal life. Mans only hope
of eternal life, then, is rooted in Gods initiative and choice. Salvation,
in other words, depends on Gods choice, not mine, and upon His sovereign
will, not mans fallen will (John 1:13; Romans 9:16; Ephesians 1:5,11;
Hebrews 10:10). That, my friend, is a firm foundation!