Eavesdropping on theological conversations is one of my favorite things to do. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t set out to eavesdrop . . . it just happens. Whether I am in line at the bookstore or minding my own business at the coffee shop, I can’t help overhearing those exciting conversations about theology.

I must admit, sometimes it is hard to stay quiet. For example, my internal combustion starts when I hear two zealous, freshly minted Calvinists talking about John Calvin and how he took down Jacob Arminius. Maybe it is time to set the record straight: Calvin and Arminius were not fencing opponents. In fact, Arminius was born just prior to Calvin meeting his Maker. I know, quite the letdown. History is not always as clean as we want it to be.

That brings me to another eavesdropping favorite. Two Calvinists strike up a conversation, and I just happen to be nearby. As they express their love for the doctrines of grace, I then hear them describe the difference between, say, Calvin and Arminius: the former rejected free will and the latter heralded free will. Though they don’t know it yet, pitching the long-standing debate this way leaves them open to the all-too common objection that we are just a bunch of robots. Maybe it is time for the eavesdropper to speak up.

Pighius (Yes, His Real Name)

Now you know Arminius was not a contemporary of Calvin. But hold on a minute, Calvin did have plenty of nemeses, and one of them would take up Calvin on issues that would later on put Arminius in hot water with his Reformed counterparts. The man’s name was Albertus Pighius, a Dutch Roman Catholic scholar.

You may be aware of Martin Luther’s famous work The Bondage of the Will, a must read for every Christian. But many forget that Calvin wrote a book with a similar title: The Bondage and Liberation of the Will (though it is his subtitle that gets down to the nitty-gritty: A Defense of the Orthodox Doctrine of Human Choice Against Pighius).

While there is much we could say about the Calvin-Pighius boxing match, I want to ask a question that may seem, well, obvious: Did Calvin believe in free will? By looking at Calvin’s Institutes, as well as his debate with Pighius, we discover that this question is not so easily answered as one might have assumed.

Entangled in Adam’s Miseries

To begin, Calvin points us to the first sin of Adam and, like Paul in Romans 5, connects the dots from Adam to all of humanity. When Adam sinned he “entangled and immersed his offspring in the same miseries.” Calvin defines original sin as “a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls ‘works of the flesh.’” The result of descending from Adam’s “impure seed” and being “born infected with the contagion of sin” is the pervasive corruption of man’s nature, so that the “whole man is overwhelmed—as by a deluge—from head to foot, so that no part is immune from sin and all that proceeds from him is to be imputed to sin.” As Calvin states elsewhere, “So depraved is [man’s] nature that he can be moved or impelled only to evil.”

If man has been corrupted as by a deluge, and if sin permeates every recess so that “no part is immune from sin,” then it follows that man’s will is in bondage to sin. “For the will is so overwhelmed by wickedness and so pervaded by vice and corruption that it cannot in any way escape to honorable exertion or devote itself to righteousness.” Consequently, Calvin, with Augustine, does not hesitate to title the will “unfree.”

Unfree and Coerced?

Doesn’t Calvin’s argument imply that man is coerced? Not at all, Calvin replies. Man sins willingly. Yes, it is out of necessity, but not out of compulsion. Such a distinction is one of Calvin’s chief points in his treatise against Pighius, who argues that necessitas (necessity) implies coactio (coercion).

However, as Paul Helm explains, for Calvin “it does not follow from the denial of free will that what a person chooses is the result of coercion.” Coercion negates responsibility, but necessity is “consistent with being held responsible for the action, and being praised or blamed for it.” Therefore, Calvin can affirm that man “acts wickedly by will, not by compulsion.”

Willful Captivity

Does this mean that Calvin does affirm “free will”? If by freedom one means, as Pighius argues, that man’s will is in no way determined but that man has the self-power to will good or evil toward God (what is today titled libertarian freedom), so that by his own strength he can equally will either, then free will is rejected by Calvin.

But if by free will one means, as Augustine maintained, that man wills out of voluntary necessity (not coercion) then willful choice can be affirmed. Nevertheless, even if man wills out of necessity it is only a necessity to sin prior to effectual grace. “For we do not say that man is dragged unwillingly into sinning, but that because his will is corrupt he is held captive under the yoke of sin and therefore of necessity wills in an evil way. For where there is bondage, there is necessity.” Therefore, the bondage of the will to sin remains and yet such slavery is a voluntary and willful captivity. For example, consider the Devil himself. The Devil can only do evil all of the time and yet he is fully culpable for his actions and commits them voluntarily though out of necessity.

The Verdict Is In

So did Calvin believe in free will? That all depends on the meaning. If by free will one means that the unbeliever is in no way necessitated by sin, but has it in his power to either do good or evil toward God, then the answer is no. But if one means that the unbeliever is in total bondage to sin, sinning willfully yet under necessity (not coercion), making him utterly dependent upon God’s irresistible grace to liberate him, then Calvin is your man.

All that to say, next time you are eavesdropping on an enticing theological conversation you can add some insight into the mumbo jumbo, and, like a good reformer, take your listeners back to the source himself. Ad fontes!


Editor's Note: Parts of this article were adapted from Matthew Barrett’s Salvation by Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration. You can read more about the book and watch an interview with the author here. You can purchase the book here