There is an assumption amongst some Reformed people that free will is a completely unbiblical concept. This may be owing to the fact that often we only hear about free will in the context of Arminianism. The Arminians, we’re told, believed in free will and so denied God his full credit for our salvation. On the flip side, the popular belief with some is that Reformed theology denies there is any free will. In the popular mind, free will is therefore a bad thing. This is a far too simplistic approach to the matter. If we dig a little deeper and think a little more, we’ll soon discover that there is a place for free will in Reformed theology.
We need to begin with a definition and an important distinction.
I’m using the term free will in the sense of humans being able freely to make choices in life. When I say “freely,” I mean “without outside compulsion.” These free choices always entail full moral responsibility for the one who makes them. If these choices were not free, you could not be fully responsible for them.
The important distinction is a four-fold one about human nature. In Reformed theology, we distinguish between human nature in four states. In each of these four states, there is something we need to say about our ability to sin.
First, there is our original condition as created by God. Adam and Eve were created upright (Gen. 1:31). They were also endowed with free will — they were able freely to make choices. They would be morally responsible for whatever choices they made (Gen. 2:16-17). In their original condition, in true righteousness and holiness, Reformed theologians say that they were created able not to sin. Before the fall, Adam and Eve could choose not to sin. But if they did choose to sin, they would be held fully responsible for it.
Second, there is the human condition after the fall into sin. After Adam and Eve misused their free will, corruption has spread to the entire human race (Gen. 6:5). We are all fallen. In our fallen, unregenerated condition, we are not able not to sin. Unregenerated human beings still have a free will, but they can only use it in a sinful way (Jer. 13:23). As free will is exercised in that fallen human nature, there continues to be full moral responsibility (Acts 3:14-15).
Third, there is the human condition after regeneration. When the Holy Spirit causes someone to be born again, he creates a massive change which includes our will and our ability with regard to sinful choices. We are now new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). In our regenerated state, we are again restored to being able not to sin. This is what the Heidelberg Catechism is getting at in QA 8, “Q. But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil? A. Yes, unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.” Note well: if we are regenerated by the Holy Spirit, then we are able again to begin doing good. We are free to make good and God-pleasing choices.
Fourth, there is the glorified human state. After we die, or when Christ returns, we will be perfected (1 John 3:2). We will not only be sinless, but incapable of sinning. In our glorified condition, we are even better off than Adam and Eve, for we will not be able to sin. Our wills will still be free, but we will use our freedom to consistently glorify God.
- Original state: able not to sin
- Fallen state: not able not to sin
- Regenerated state: able to sin or not to sin
- Glorified state: not able to sin
Taking all that together, we can speak about free will in this way: human beings are free to do what is according to their nature. There is free will, but it is always in the context of one of those four human conditions. For us as we live on this earth now, it is always in the context of the two middle conditions. If you are not born again by the Holy Spirit, you are free to do what is in accordance with your sinful human nature. Your free choices, for which you are responsible, are always reflective of your spiritual state as a fallen human being. If you have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, you are free to do what is in accordance with your restored human nature. You can and do still sin (though you shouldn’t), but you can also say “no” to sin in growing measures (Gal. 5:16 and Titus 2:11-12).
So, where did the Arminians go wrong then? They didn’t go wrong in speaking about free will as such. Reformed theology does too — see the Westminster Confession 3.1 or chapter 9 of the Second Helvetic Confession. The Arminians went wrong in how they view humanity in the fallen state. They argued that, because of God’s prevenient grace (a grace which comes before salvation), all fallen human beings are able to use their free will to have faith in Jesus Christ. In other words, they credited all fallen people with the ability to do what Reformed theology claims is only possible for the regenerated. So, in the Arminian view, non-Christians are free to do what Christians are free to do: believe in the Saviour. That’s the problem. That view runs up against Ephesians 2:1 (and other passages) which maintain that unregenerated people are dead in sin. If you’re dead in sin, you don’t move towards God — you can’t.
Another question people will sometimes raise: if there’s human free will, then what about God’s sovereignty? How can we speak about human beings as free moral agents when the Bible teaches that God is in control of everything? The short answer is that the Bible teaches both human responsibility and divine sovereignty, without directly laying out how these two fit together. I think the best expression of this is found in Westminster Confession 3.1:
God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
What this means is that God is completely in control of the universe, yet creatures still have a will, and these two truths are not in conflict with one another.
Last of all, what about article 14 of the Belgic Confession? It says:
Therefore we reject all teaching contrary to this concerning the free will of man, since man is a slave to sin (John 8:34) and a man can receive only what is given him from heaven (John 3:27).
The Belgic Confession does not deny that human beings can and do make choices for which they are morally responsible. The Confession’s argument is here directed against Roman Catholicism which, like Arminianism later on, runs into trouble on the question of the ability of fallen human beings to choose what is right and pleasing to God. Rome said that fallen man is not dead in sin, but merely injured and in need of some help. In spite of the injury, fallen man can use his free will to choose what is good. So, again, the problem is not free will as such, but how it’s understood.
It’s important to understand these things properly because moral responsibility is at stake. If human beings have no free will, then we cannot be held accountable for the wrong choices we make. If human beings have no free will, then you can point your finger at God and say, “It’s his fault. I’m just a robot and he’s at the controls.” As it is, the Bible is clear that we are fully responsible for our sinful choices. And, further, as Christians we need not be fatalistic about our sanctification either (“Nothing will ever change!”). No, our wills have been transformed so that we are free to follow God. If you have a choice between sinning and not sinning, by God’s grace you can make the choice to not sin. The Holy Spirit has given you that ability. Through him, your will is already free and someday it will be fully free!