The Problem of Free Will

John 1:12, John 8:31-38

In his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, Martin Luther moves from the problem of good works to the nature of the human will.

A keystone of reformation theology is the understanding that the human will after the fall is no longer neutral.  It is corrupted, bent in on itself so that the natural person cannot chose the Good, but can only do what the sinful nature does which is to sin.  Hence, the will is bound.  It is not forced to sin, but its nature is corrupted so that it cannot do otherwise.  It is as Jesus said, “He who sins is a slave to sin”(John 8:35). Of course, if the Son sets one free, they are free indeed the next verse concludes.

Luther’s thesis states: (#13)

Free will after the fall, exists in name only and as long as it does what it is able to do commits a deadly sin.

What Luther is saying here is that because all have sinned, all people in their natural state are slaves to sin and as such can do nothing but sin.  It is not that we are forced to sin, but that our will is bound and cannot do otherwise.  In other words, every one of our actions have an independent sinful bent to them.  Our independence from God as natural human beings is the root source of all sin.  As the scripture says: “Everything that does not proceed from faith is sin.”  (Rom 14:23) Human unbelief is the root of sin and so for the natural man, everything than he thinks or does is tainted with a selfish, sinful attitude for which he stands condemned.

We must remember of course that such discussions of the will are limited to those things, which Luther says lie “above us” .  With reference to the things of God, who is above us, our will is indeed bound.  However, with reference to things “below us”, such as what to have for supper, whom to marry, and what church to attend, these things are “below us” and as to such creaturely pursuits, we do have freedom of will.  But not towards the things of God.  We are simply not able to choose the Good.

Now, some would argue that in the state of innocence before the fall that Adam and Eve had a morally neutral will, in that they were free to do good or to sin.  After the fall, they became unable not to sin because their will was now bent in on itself and bound, their natures being thus corrupted.  Those in Christ Jesus, are recreated, filled with the Holy Spirit and are released from this binding of the will and are able now to chose to do good, but are also free to sin should they fail to put to death that sin that dwells within, the old self inherited from Adam and Eve.

Luther, however, introduces another nuance to the concept of human will by proposing that it has never had an active capacity to do good, but only a passive capacity.  The analogy of water helps here.  Water has a passive capacity for heat.  It can be heated by an external force, but it has no active capacity to heat itself.  In the same way, even in the state of innocence, the human will had no active capacity to choose good, but only a passive capacity.  Because we are completely contingent creatures, we can only do good to the extent that we are empowered toward the good by the God who alone is Good.  As long as Adam and Eve trusted completely in God and took their cues from God they were maintained by God in that state of innocence. This was completely passive on their part, “God working in them to will and to work for His good purpose” (Phil 2:12).  Any active move of the will in an independent direction turns out to be evil.  In actively pursuing another “good” (i.e. why not be like God?), they actually embrace evil.  So any active capacity that the human will has always moves towards evil.  After the fall, the relationship with God is severed and Adam and Eve’s will is now isolated even further from God.  Wishing to be independent of God, their rebellion corrupted their link to the Good, binding their will so that they become slaves of sin.   Because their will is now severed from God, there is nothing they can do to even prepare themselves for that which God alone must do in them.

Now Theologians of Glory, find such a stance repulsive.  Surely, this is much too pessimistic, they say.  Surely, there must be in us some capacity, ever so small perhaps, to prepare ourselves to receive grace.  But by insisting that we must have even a tiny capacity to actively seek the Good, this stance violates the scripture which says “There is no one righteous, not even one… there is no one that seeks for God.” (Rom 3:10)  In fact, any human endeavor to do good apart from the God who is good, invariably leads to evil.  Even in works of civil righteousness which benefit humanity, their performance as “good works” done apart form faith, draw us further from the truth that we are sinners to the core.  These “good works” become a defense mechanism against God and against the gospel, and in the realm of eternity actually hurt us.

So if our will is naturally incapable of choosing the Good and we are slaves to sin, dead in our trespasses, how is it that so many of our Evangelistic programs are predicated on people making a choice for Christ.

I am thinking of the“decision for Christ”language that is so prevalent in Evangelical circles.  Is it really true that we become believers by an exercise of our will, thereby making a “decision for Christ”?   If we are really saved by grace alone by faith alone, and if faith is really a gift of God, so that no one can boast (Eph. 2:8), then what part if any does our will play in salvation?

According to Luther, it plays zero part.  We are not saved in any measure by an exercise of our will, nor can our will even prepare us for grace.

The proof  is in John 1 12-13.  “ But to all that did receive him, who believed in his name,  he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, but of God.”

The Theologian of the Cross, recognizes that Luther is right and that the will is indeed incapable of doing any good apart from God.  What sort of “good” could we do?  Making up our own minds about what is really good is the essence of original sin.  The Nazi death camps were a culturally driven humanistic attempt to will that a German Reich, and a world, without Jews was “good”.  The depths of depravity that the human will is capable of knows no bounds. .     God must of necessity operate on the human heart by first putting to death the will.  Only in dying is there rebirth.  So what is to be done?  The sinner must cast himself on the mercy of God by humbling himself and praying for saving grace.  This is the main purpose of the law to convict of sin, so that the sinner casts himself on the mercy of God.  The law effects fear and wrath, but grace effects hope and mercy.

Regeneration then is that entirely alien act of God upon the sinner that kills the will and recreates it so that it now has a passive capacity energized by the Holy Spirit to follow Christ.   God must of necessity operate on the human heart by first putting to death the will.  Only in dying is there rebirth.  Only after a death can there be a resurrection.  That is how God works.  He makes a person a sinner so that He can make him righteous.

We participate in this death by complete surrender and repentance.   We participate in this new life by exercising the faith given us, becoming again those continent beings that take their life from God alone.  ”I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I that live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20)

The only “decision” that I can ever make for Christ is a subsequent one, a decision to give my will to now be ruled by Him.  But that can only happen after the rebirth, never before.  That‘s what the cross does.  That is how God works.  The Theologian of Glory does not like it because there is zero room for the human will seeking the Good.

But that is why God alone gets the glory.  The Son has to set you free.  I cannot will that for another or even for myself. Each one must be born of God.

How it happens and when and why it happens is a divine mystery that only God has access to.  We can only stand back and marvel.  And when it happens to us, we are overcome with gratitude and joy…and we worship in Spirit and in Truth!



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