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Definition

All people have free will in that they are free to choose what they want to choose, but our desires, which lead to our choices, are affected by our natures, so that those with a sinful nature only desire to choose sin.

Summary

Because the Scriptures describe humans as holistic creatures, we know that the will does not function independently of the rest of human nature. Therefore, for the will to be free is not for the will to have the ability to choose any arbitrary option but for it to be able to freely choose what the heart desires. For the human will to be free, then, is for a person to be able to choose what they want to choose. However, the Bible is also clear that our nature as fallen persons is not neutral; rather, we are desperately sinful, not merely because we sin by omission and by commission but because we have all inherited a depraved nature. This means that apart from the grace of God, we are unable to choose anything other than sin because by virtue of our sinful nature, we only desire to choose sin. In this way, the human will is both free to choose and make morally culpable choices and bound to only choose sin apart from the grace of God.

Four Biblical Principles

Although there are various ways that Christians understand the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human freedom, there are several biblical principles that must be upheld by everyone. First, there can be no denial of the fact that the Bible teaches that God is fully sovereign. In Scripture, this is not controversial, and it is a reason to praise God and rejoice. Second, people have an inherited sin nature, and they are born in need of divine grace for salvation. Third, even though people are born with a sin nature, they are still morally and judicially responsible for what they do. Fourth, God is perfect and maximally worthy of praise, and part of his perfection is that he cannot sin (i.e. everything God does must be perfectly righteous and holy). Taken individually, all of these theological propositions are readily acceptable, but when believers start trying to analyze them and relate them together in consistent and coherent ways, serious divisions can emerge.

For example, evangelicals agree that human beings are born with a sin nature that is turned away from God. They agree that without God’s grace nobody would be saved. But when it comes to understanding how the fallen human will and God’s grace interact with each other, disagreements abound. Yes, evangelicals agree that every faculty of an unregenerate individual is affected by sin, but the extent that the human will is affected by sin is hotly debated. Everyone is born in sin, and the will is affected by it, but what capacity and ability does our sinful will have apart from regeneration and saving grace? What can our will do? How free are we?

The Heart of the Matter

The biblical witness is that human beings are holistic creatures—we think and act from our hearts. In other words, the will is not to be thought of as an autonomous faculty detached from our nature. Perhaps it is best to understand the will simply as our ability to choose. Our will does not override our heart (our innermost self, the center of our personality), and our heart does not operate outside of our nature. Our heart has its desires and priorities, and our will moves in response to what we naturally desire. So, we do what we most want to do; we choose in accordance with the desires of our nature as they are found in our hearts.

This raises the question, of course, as to what precisely our nature is. The Bible is unequivocal in its assessment that we are all desperately sinful, not merely because we sin by omission and by commission but because we have all inherited a depraved nature. The human heart is desperately sinful and deceptive (Jer. 17:9). Both before and after the flood, God’s analysis of the human heart is that it is only wicked all the time (Gen. 6:5; 8:21). Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18–32 details the painful reality of human depravity, and his summary of the human condition in Romans 3:9–20 removes any grounds for thinking that anyone is innocent in the sight of God—it also destroys any possibility of salvation apart from the pure grace of God. Small wonder that Paul can say that before being regenerated, “you were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Eph. 2:1); we are not merely sick in sin—even terminally—we are dead.

Since our will moves in accordance with our heart’s desires, having a depraved nature means that our wills move away from God. The heart is the vital issue. As Jesus said, “‘What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person’” (Mark 7:20–23). Jesus also said, “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Matt. 12:33–34). All of our thoughts, words, and actions proceed from our hearts. Our hearts are evil and in bondage to sin. Since our will is not master of our heart, and our hearts are mastered by wickedness, it follows that our wills are enslaved to sin. On its own, the human will does not have the freedom to overcome the sinful heart. We choose in accordance with our nature, and our nature is in rebellion against God.

One of the most sobering—not to mention damning—indictments of the human condition is found in Romans 8:7–8. Paul writes, “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.” This makes it very clear that not only does the mind governed by the sinful nature not submit to God, it cannot submit to God. Apart from grace, human beings cannot please God or submit to his law. If our wills were autonomous and could transcend our depraved nature, it would be logically possible for us to choose to submit to God’s law, but this is a possibility that Paul categorically denies. No, our will implements the desires of our hearts, and as a result it chooses according to hostility to God and rebellion against his law.

Nevertheless, we are fully responsible for all our sinful choices. The fact that God punishes people for theirs sins is proof that they deserve it. We are morally responsible agents. This means that people are to be considered responsible when they act out of the desires of their natures. We do not pick our desires, but we are morally and spiritually responsible for our actions when we act out of our natures. In other words, we are responsible when we do what we want to do. If we have sinful hearts and we desire to sin, we are accountable when we act out of that nature. An inability not to sin does not exonerate us. People are culpable for all that they do. We exercise our will in the direction that our depraved nature leans, and we are responsible for so doing.

Conclusion

Freedom, then, is not an autonomous ability to choose between alternative possibilities, or a special ability to transcend our natures. All that is required for freedom in a morally relevant and responsible sense is that we choose to do what we want to do. God’s nature is such that he only ever does what is righteous, yet he is still maximally worthy of praise. God does not have a genuine choice between doing good or doing evil: his nature forbids it. Yet God is still morally responsible for all that he does (which is why he is worthy of praise—he acts as an agent, not as a machine). God’s freedom consists in acting in accordance with his nature. This same principle extends to human freedom—we are responsible when we act according to our nature. God has an inability to do evil. Fallen sinners have an inability to live in a way which pleases God. God can only ever do what is right. Depraved rebels cannot submit to God’s holy law. A good tree (i.e. nature) produces good fruit; a bad tree produces bad fruit. Apart from God’s grace, we are all bad trees and will produce bad fruit. As terrible as it is, apart from the grace of God, the freedom of our wills consists of acting in slavery to our sinful hearts. Thanks be to God for his rich and liberating grace!

Further Reading