WCF 9: Of Free Will
It’s a common objection to the doctrine of particular redeeming grace: What about free will? With a free will can’t we desire God, and decide to follow him on our own initiative? But that argument begs the question; what needs to be proven is merely assumed. We need to know what Scripture teaches about the human will.
Our will is what we desire or determine to do, our inclinations. If in some way our wills are impaired—or as Luther put it, if our wills are in bondage—we are dependent on God “both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Following Saint Augustine we can speak of human nature in its four-fold state. Nuancing humanity’s condition as created, fallen, redeemed, and glorified will help us more accurately understand free will and its implications.
Man’s Will in a State of Innocence (9.1–2)
God created our wills upright and free (Eccl. 7:29). Before sin entered the world the human will was neither “forced, nor … determined to do good or evil.” And this is always true—the freedom to will is fundamental to humanity. But our ability to express that freedom can change. Free will means that no outside force wills for us. We always have the freedom to want what we want even if we lack the freedom to do what we want.
As Augustine put it, in the state of innocence man was both truly able to sin and able not to sin. God genuinely warned our first parents not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17). And they could have obeyed. They could have chosen life. But because they were free people God didn’t force them to serve him. Nor did he force them to sin.
The assertion that humans have a free will today is true to a point. The first sin was a free choice. So is every subsequent sin. But after the first sin the human will—through our own choice—has become inclined to sin. Our wills are still free in the sense that no one is pulling the strings of our desires. Even when circumstances affect our choices, our wills—our authentic wants—are still our own. But no longer are we who will in the state of innocence. Our state of being has changed. So we now freely will differently.
Man’s Will in a State of Sin (9.3)
The fall radically tainted every part of us including our desires. Apart from God’s restoring grace we are dead in sin (Eph. 2:1); we have lost the vitality of true desires. “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7–8; cf. Heb. 11:6). Ordinary sinners constantly twist God’s blessed design for our lives (Gen. 6:5). Unconverted people can will things that accord with natural goodness. But no longer sharing the interests of God “they have lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation.”
Still, sinners are free; no one is stopping them from loving God. I may want to play pro football. And I’m free to try to earn a spot on any NFL team. But I am not able to make the team. I’m slow, weak, and unskilled. But my inability does not infringe on the freedom of my will. So Scripture genuinely offers salvation. God set before his people “life and death, blessing and curse,” commanding them to choose life, love God, obey his voice, and hold fast to him (Deut. 30:19–20). But of the same people Joshua said, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God” (Josh. 24:19). The Israelites were steeped in idolatry. Their hearts leaned against the Lord (23). Saint Augustine said it rightly: natural man is not able not to sin.
Man’s Will in a State of Grace (9.4)
In contrast to natural man, converted people, said Augustine, are able not to sin. Why? God repairs our will. He doesn’t violate our desires. Rather, he “infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil will good…; he activates and strengthens the will” so that we can desire and live well.[i] In due time God frees the elect from their “natural bondage under sin.” “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6).
Still, a war rages in the believer’s inner life. Sometimes we don’t even understand what we do (Rom. 7:15). We don’t will wholeheartedly. And even when we truly want what is right we don’t always have the strength to carry out our desires (Rom. 7:18). Our wills are completely free to sin or not to sin. And we have a responsibility to make moral choices that please God. So being impressionable we must shepherd our wills. Because our peers shape our desires we must choose our friends carefully. Most importantly, our relationship to God affects our wills. When we are close to God—listening to his voice through his word, praying, repenting, worshiping—we will want more of what he wants.
Man’s Will in a State of Glory (9.5)
A glorified saint is not able to sin, as Augustine put it. Glorification is the goal of the Christian life. Death for believers is the consummation of sanctification and the entering into glory. At that moment we will become irreversibly like Jesus. Only then will “we attain … to the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13) and become justified people made perfect (Heb. 12:23). No longer will our desires conflict with God’s nor our actions fall short of our intentions. Frustration is the annoyance of not being able to achieve what we want. Heaven will be the end of spiritual frustration.
Understanding what Scripture teaches about the perfection of the will in glory is important. It keeps us from having unreasonable expectations here and now. “In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning” of true obedience. We still press on “with all seriousness of purpose … to live according to all … of God’s commandments.”[ii] But we don’t expect the impossible. A right view of how glorification affects the Christian will also keeps our eyes fixed on Jesus, eagerly awaiting his return. Desiring perfection in glory is part of the sanctification process. The more we want to be “blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 1:24) the more heaven will come into our hearts and be reflected in our lives.
Christians reject fatalism. The will of humans is always free, properly understood. But there is vast diversity in the human condition. The main point is that we must not use our “freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (Gal. 5:13). Instead, we cry out for grace, serve God and our neighbor, and press on until holiness is our only desire. “The whole Christian battle is a battle of the will.”[iii] One day, by god’s grace, we will win that conflict!
[i] Canons of Dort, 3/4.11.
[ii] Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 114.
[iii] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess, 235.