The term “Free Will” has many usages in today’s language. The predominant usage of the term “Free Will” promotes the idea that Man has the ability to choose his destination to either Heaven or Hell. This short article on the subject will examine “Free Will” as it is contained within the scriptures.
In the Garden of Eden, God created man in his own image. God by his own estimation decreed his creation to be “very good” at the end of the sixth day. Adam and Eve were created as naturally good, and only knowing good. They were created uncorrupted, but corruptible. In this naturally good, sinless state they were given simple instructions. You can eat of the fruit of any of the trees of the garden freely, even the Tree of Life, but you cannot eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Seems simple enough doesn’t it? Just don’t eat of one tree, when you have all these others to choose from. Adam and Eve had the free will to eat of any of the trees, and they chose to disobey God and eat of the very one that God instructed them not to eat. God expelled them from the Garden of Eden, and they were no longer free to enter the Garden, and especially to eat of the Tree of Life. God protected the “way” of the Tree of Life with Cherubims that had a flaming sword that turned every way. Adam had fallen. He fell from the image of God in which he was created (knowing only good and being only good). Adam by his sin had fallen from fellowship with God, which God called “death”. Adam’s nature had changed from being a naturally good man to being a naturally depraved man. Adam still had the free will to act consistent with his fallen nature, but he lost the ability to take of the Tree of Life that he had in his first nature. Adam’s new depraved nature passed to all men. All men from the first procreated child, Cain, were conceived in sin and possess the fallen nature of their first father, Adam. It did not take long for the effects of man’s fallen nature to manifest itself. Adam was naked and afraid and tried to hide from God. He tried to cover up his nakedness, but his covering was insufficient. He tried to blame God and Eve for his sin. Eve tried to blame Satan. Neither of them blamed the real offenders, themselves. Their first son committed murder in killing Abel, his brother. And the chain of sin has remained unbroken in the history of procreation. All natural men are natural sinners by their natural conception.
So, is man free to exercise his will? There are two distinct ways to define “Free Will”. One is that man is free to exercise his will by his own desires, wants and needs, free from compulsion or force. After the Fall of Adam, man still possesses the free will to choose to do or not to do anything within the boundary of his nature. At this moment, I can choose to keep writing or get up and watch TV. I can choose to go to bed or stay up late. I can choose to eat a peanut butter sandwich or eat vegetable soup. The second (and I submit an absurd) way to define “Free Will” is that man is free to exercise his will without limitations, or outside the bounds of his nature. I cannot choose to change the color of my skin. I cannot choose to sprout wings and fly like a bird. I cannot choose to live in the water and breath as a fish does. In this respect, man does NOT possess free will.
Jer 13:23 Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.
As it is true that we cannot exert our free will outside the natural limitations of our nature, so also is it true that we cannot exert our free will outside of the spiritual limitations imposed upon us by the fall of Adam. Let us look at some scriptures describing the natural state of man being conceived in sin.
Job 14:4 Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one.
Isa 64:6 But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.
Ps 51:5 Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Ps 14:3 They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.
Ps 53:3 Every one of them is gone back: they are altogether become filthy; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.
Ro 3:10 As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one:
Ro 3:12 They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.
Ro 3:23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;
Ro 5:12 Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:
It is not a pretty picture. Man in his natural state is unable to become clean, unable to become righteous, unable to do good, unable to attain to the glory of God and unable to escape death. In our natural conception, we exhibit the fallen nature and image of our first father Adam. This is the state of all human beings by our natural conception. We are limited by the bounds of our corrupt nature. The Apostle Paul describes the effect of Adam’s transgression against God this way:
Rom 5: 12 Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:
13 (For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law.
14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come.
1Co 15:22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
First, sin entered into the world by Adam. Death immediately ensued. Man’s relationship with God in his created estate was lost, having sin and being thrust out of the garden, disallowed to enter again. At that moment, Adam’s body began to die as well. The Law of Sin and Death began to reign (and still does) over all natural men, because we all were represented by Adam. The evidence is clear. Our loved ones die all around us, and we too will face it one day (unless we are alive at the Lord’s return. See 1Th 4:17). We did not commit the original sin like Adam. We were never able to do so. We were not conceived in the same state that Adam was created in. The free will to eat of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil or the Tree of Life was not given to anyone but Adam and Eve. God placed the limitation on free will. The Apostle Paul described this limitation very directly in his first letter to the church at Corinth.
1Co 2:14 But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
Just as I am unable to sprout wings and fly, so also is the natural man unable to exhibit the characteristics of a spiritual nature by his free will. He must first obtain a new nature, a spiritual birth. But how does the natural man do this, if he is unable to act outside of the limitations of his nature? Man cannot just “decide” to exhibit characteristics that he does not possess. God, the creator of all the natural realm, is also the creator of the spiritual realm. Here is what the Apostle John had to say about it.
Joh 1:13 Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
John says that the people under consideration (which believe on His name) were not born of blood. So, this new nature did not come about by our parent’s lineage of by reason of our natural birth. This new nature did not come about by the WILL of the flesh, or our natural nature. This new nature did not come about by the WILL of any other man who desires for someone else to possess this new nature. This new nature comes about in the new birth – OF GOD. Why did John make such as statement? Did he just make it up? On What basis did he have this knowledge?
He was taught it out of Jesus’ own mouth by the events that happened to Nicodemus.
John 3: 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.
8 The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.
Jesus and John are not the only ones to talk about the new nature. The Spirit says by the pen of Peter in:
1Pe 1:23 Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.
So, we are born again not of the corruptible seed of fallen man, but of incorruptible (not able to be corrupted) seed from God. This “word of God” is not the preached word or the written word. They have not been around forever. It is the same Word that was with God and was God in the beginning that John talked about. God is the operator in this conception. But Jesus, John and Peter are not alone. The Apostle Paul said in:
Ga 4:29 But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now.
Eph 2:1 And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins;
Eph 2:5 Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)
Tit 3:5 Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost;
So, the scriptures are consistent throughout in describing how one acquires the spiritual nature and who does the operation of getting us “born again”. The bible is clear. Man does not have the ability to exercise free will to change his corrupted nature. God does that by His Spirit. There are many other scriptures to cite in accordance with these truths but would be too lengthy to include here.
If a man is not able to exercise free will to be born again, what about all of the scriptures that talk about choosing to walk on the “strait and narrow”? Great question! Here lies one of the great keys to reconciling seemingly contradictory passages of scripture. God makes us sons by the new birth. If a man has been born from above, or “born again”, he now possesses two natures. He has become a spiritual man with a spiritual nature, but he has not shed his natural nature. The “born again” child of God has been both conceived of his natural parents and born from above. He now exhibits characteristics of both his natural father and his Heavenly Father. He now has the capability to exhibit the fruit of the Spirit.
Ga 5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, 23 Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.
Since he now possesses a new nature, he is free to act in accordance with his new nature. But the new nature is totally opposed to the old nature. Once a man is born again, his conflict begins. There is a constant warfare between what Paul calls the “Old Man” and the “New Man”. Only born-again children of God have this warfare. This is the point where the scriptures admonish us to choose the good way. Only the born-again are able to “put on” the new man, or act in accordance with their new nature.
Ga 5:24 And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.
25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.
Much of the new testament contains instructions for the born-again man to act like it. The “born again” man cannot get rid of his natural nature, but he can and should exhibit the heavenly characteristics. I have two children. I fathered them. They look like me. They have many of my mannerisms. I love them. But they do not always do what I ask them to do. They do not always please me. When they do not do what I ask of them, or displease me by their actions, they are still my children. The same is true of God’s children. The born-again do not always act like it. They do not always choose to exhibit the godly characteristics that they received by reason of their new birth. The key to reconciling seemingly contradictory passages of scripture is to determine whether it is speaking of “sonship” or “discipleship”. God makes sons. Discipleship is being a good son. Discipleship is being obedient and exhibiting the characteristics of his Heavenly Father, glorifying Him and loving his brother, among all the other “fruit” of the Spirit. Discipleship is putting off the “old man” and putting on the “new man”. Discipleship is “mortifying the deeds of the flesh”. Discipleship is conducting the manner of your life after the pattern of Jesus Christ according to the principles of the Kingdom of God.
Eph 4:22 That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; 23 And be renewed in the spirit of your mind;
24 And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.
Col 3:10 And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him:
But what about the scriptures that are an invitation? For example:
Mr 8:34 And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
Lu 9:24 For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.
Re 22:17 And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.
These invitations are for the ones who have the ability to exercise their will having a new nature. God has given them a will to follow him. These are to the “born again” who have been given the will to please God
Php 2:13 For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.
But there are those who “will not”.
Lu 9:5 And whosoever will not receive you, when ye go out of that city, shake off the very dust from your feet for a testimony against them.
Lu 22:67 Art thou the Christ? tell us. And he said unto them, If I tell you, ye will not believe:
Joh 5:40 And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life.
And there are those that “cannot”. There are boundaries to our “free will”. God set the boundaries. The “unborn again” cannot see, nor enter the kingdom of God. They cannot hear his word in their natural nature, nor can they receive the Spirit of Truth in this condition.
Joh 3:3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
Joh 3:5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
Joh 8:43 Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word.
Joh 14:17 Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.
In conclusion, all human beings can exercise their free will within the parameters of their natural nature. They may or may not do something according to their pleasure, wants or needs. The “born again” have two natures in which they can exercise their free will within the parameters of each nature. Being born again is an act of the Holy Spirit, sent from God. God is the operator of this birth outside the will of the natural man. After being born again, the individual has two natures, both of the “old man” and the “new man”. All of the invitations given in the scriptures to “come”, “take”, “drink”, “save his life” are given to those who have been born again – the “spiritually alive”. They have the capability to come, take, drink and “save his life”. This invitation is not given to those who are dead in trespasses and sins in order that they might have spiritual life. What can a dead man do? The only thing a dead man can do is stink. He cannot come, take, drink or any other action that is only available for a born again man to do.