The freedom of the will has been the subject of heated debate for centuries. Naturally, man wants to maintain control over his destiny and salvation; therefore, many cling to the notion of “free will.” John 3:16 is often used as the proof text for this view. However, in focusing on John 3:16 to the exclusion of the remainder of the Bible, Christians tend to overlook the role of the Holy Spirit in conversion and faith.
Without delving into the intricate details of the doctrine of predestination or quoting gobs of Reformed theologians, I want to take just a few moments to bring attention to particular scriptures that explain the mechanics of faith.
CONCEPT 1: THE CALL
Those who defend “free will” typically point to the following scriptures as proof texts that all men have the freedom and innate ability to choose Christ and therefore salvation:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
2 Peter 3:9.
Because these scriptures say that God wants all men to repent and believe in Christ, the conclusion drawn is that man obviously has the ability to do so of their own power and will. But such interpretation ignores the whole of scripture, particularly those scriptures addressing how a believer comes to the moment of faith.
What the above-quoted scriptures represent is the general call to all men to turn from sin and darkness. In order for men not to have an excuse, the invitation must be made to all so that there can be forgiveness and condemnation. How can any man be condemned for rejecting an invitation that wasn’t addressed to him?
Additionally, these scriptures clearly express the truth that God does, in fact, desire that all men repent of their sin and turn to Him. Everything that God creates is good. He creates no man with the intention that such man be evil. We know this because scripture is clear that God is not the author of evil. Consequently, He wants the best for His creation. A painter doesn’t paint with the intent or desire that his painting be terrible and burned in the fire. No, he wants the painting to be good and displayed. God wants nothing less for His creation than the painter.
In order not to create robots, God creates man with a will and the ability to reason. The will and reason give man freedom to make choices, so that when a man turns to evil, that is not of God, but of the man’s own desire.
When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
So here the “free willist” will exclaim, “Gotcha!” I just admitted that man has the freedom to make choices, right? Yes, but that’s only half the story. That gets you only as far as Adam and Eve, who were born without sinful natures. One must turn to the next chapter of man to understand why the will is no longer “free” as many Christians believe.
CONCEPT 2: BLINDNESS
Many Christians gloss over the true consequence of the Fall of Man; that is the consequence of sin and death entering the world in response to the first sin committed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Romans 5:12-14. Because of Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience, sin and death “reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses.”
To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.
So, man started out with free will, but, at the Fall, man’s character became corrupted by the taint of sinful desires. At that point, man still had a will, but it became inclined to evil. And when the Law was given to Moses, that is when man truly hit rock-bottom.
We are told that the Law of Moses was fertile soil for sin:
I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.
As we can see here, once the Law was given to Moses, sin capitalized on the moment and wreaked havoc on man’s will. Satan took this opportunity afforded by the Law and blinded man so that he could no longer seek God.
The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
2 Corinthians 4:4.
Man was then described as wholly corrupt such that no one sought God:
For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
“Bondage” and “blindness” are used repeatedly to describe the fallen condition of man. These terms are simply incompatible with the common understanding of “free will.” How can someone who is blind, cannot understand spiritual matters, and is enslaved to sin be free? They cannot. Some try to skirt this truth by saying the Fall only changed man such that he was inclined to sin but that he retained the ability to choose good. While that might feel good, it contradicts scripture after scripture.
Romans 3, quoted above, says that no one seeks God, “not even one.” You might ask, “How can this be so, because all sorts of people follow God today?” That is absolutely true, but what we learn by studying the whole of scripture is that those who follow God are those whose sight is restored by God by His sending the Holy Spirit into their hearts. Without the Holy Spirit, sinful man remains blind to God and unable to turn to Christ.
Consider the following:
The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.
Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
1 Corinthians 12:3.
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.
He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”
“Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
What do we learn from scriptures such as these? That man in his fallen state is spiritually blind, is in bondage to sin, cannot submit to God, must be enabled by God to choose Christ, and cannot put his faith in Christ except by the power of the Holy Spirit. How much clearer could scripture be that man requires the Holy Spirit to believe when it says, “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit?” 1 Corinthians 12:3. How “free” does this sound?
CONCEPT 3: THE HOLY SPIRIT
When reading the whole of scripture, one must face the reality that man has faith in Christ only by the power of the Holy Spirit. This work of the Holy Spirit in man has many names, such as rebirth, renewal, washing, and regeneration.
At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
Jesus said plainly that no one can even see God unless they are born again by the Spirit:
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again. . . . Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Many believe that rebirth is something that happens after one has placed his faith in Jesus. Still others believe that rebirth happens only after physical baptism, when, so goes the interpretation, the believer receives the Holy Spirit. Contrary to these interpretations, Jesus clearly taught that one cannot even see the Kingdom of God unless they have first been reborn BY THE SPIRIT. This is consistent with what Jesus said in John 6 that “no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.” God enables man to believe in Jesus by opening his eyes and ears and releasing him from his bondage to sin by the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit. Then, by the Spirit, man places his faith in Jesus.
The “free willist” usually takes the position that the Holy Spirit is received in response to faith as opposed to faith being in response to the Holy Spirit. That position completely contradicts the whole of scripture. How much more plainly could it be stated that “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit”? 1 Corinthians 12:3. Or, stated another way: “Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’” Galatians 4:6. Did you catch that? It is the Spirit within man that calls out to God.
Without the Spirit living inside a man, he cannot say “Jesus is Lord” and he cannot submit to God. But if the Spirit is living in a man, he is adopted and saved:
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. . . . Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 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. You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you. . . . For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
This is not a “chicken and the egg” riddle. Scripture puts any perceived riddle to rest–Spirit precedes faith, not vice versa, hence scripture that says Jesus is the “author and perfecter of our faith.” Hebrews 12:2. In fact, without the Spirit, man cannot even understand spiritual things, such as Christ:
The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.
1 Corinthians 2:14.
Without the Spirit, scripture tells us that the gospel is veiled to man:
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.
2 Corinthians 4:3-6.
This “light” God shines into the darkness of the heart of sinful man is the Holy Spirit.
I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God.
When one comes to the realization that faith requires the Holy Spirit, he is forced to acknowledge that the freedom he once took such great pride in is a fallacy. How can man’s will be truly free, when he is blinded and cannot submit to God or say “Jesus is Lord” without the internal working of the Holy Spirit? And not only that, as shown above, if the Holy Spirit is in a man, then that man is saved. There is no in-between, where a man’s eyes are opened by the Spirit and then he freely rejects the Spirit.
Many “free willists” who ponder these scriptures conclude that the Holy Spirit must work on all men so that all men have the free ability to choose God. The problem is, such position has no basis in scripture and upends a great amount of contradictory scripture.
CONCEPT 4: ISRAEL
One of the common objections to predestination is that God would be unjust for choosing some to regenerate by the Spirit and not others if all men are under the same curse and spiritual blindness. In such case, how could God blame those whom He did not regenerate? One of the least preached passages of scripture squarely addresses this objection:
It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.” Not only that, but Rebekah’s children were conceived at the same time by our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses,“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use? What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?
Did you hear the theoretical objector? “Then why does God still blame us?” And what was God’s response? “Who are you to talk back to God?” The very obvious question is why would the theoretical objector object if man was capable of determining his own destiny of his own free will? He wouldn’t. There would be no objection.
Romans 9 does not say that God rejects anyone who calls out for Him. To the contrary, Romans 9 analogizes God to a potter shaping clay. And we learn elsewhere in scripture that God shapes His people by the Holy Spirit. A man’s spiritual rebirth is part of this shaping by the Spirit.
Romans 9 highlights Israel and dispenses with any objection one might have to God for choosing one man over another if not based upon free will. God chose Israel over all of mankind to save. How was that fair to the remainder of mankind? It’s not like Israel was better or more righteous than the rest of mankind. To the contrary, God tells us that the Israelites were a “stiff-necked” people and did not even conform to the standards of the Nations around them. God also emphasized that He did not choose Israel because of her righteousness.
“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: This is Jerusalem, which I have set in the center of the nations, with countries all around her. Yet in her wickedness she has rebelled against my laws and decrees more than the nations and countries around her. She has rejected my laws and has not followed my decrees. Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: “You have been more unruly than the nations around you and have not followed my decrees or kept my laws. You have not even conformed to the standards of the nations around you.”
Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.
So, what about that objection to God choosing one over another and not based on the free will of man? In the Old Testament, we find God choosing one Nation over all the others, when that Nation rebelled against God more than the other Nations. Does that sound fair? Some dismiss this because they don’t think the Old Testament applies to New Testament believers. I will need a whole other post to demonstrate how that is false logic. When one accepts this concept of God restoring His people by the internal work of the Holy Spirit, the entirety of the Bible flows together congruously.
CONCEPT 5: THE GOSPEL IS PERSONAL
One of the most beautiful parts of the Gospel is that it is personal. By that I mean that God opens the eyes of His people, reveals Christ to them, adopts them as sons, and guarantees their salvation. This is done at a personal level, not something that is done across all of mankind uniformly. If you believe in Christ, it is because God claimed you personally and put His Spirit in you, opening your eyes and guaranteeing your salvation. Wow! How powerful a message is that?
This personal nature of the Gospel is what is meant by having a relationship with God. Many Christians mistake this relationship as being something like human companionship, but that is not what is meant by a relationship. The relationship is the personal connection between the believer and God, where God claims the person as an adopted son and directly dwells and works within the person. And one knows this is occurring by his faith, because without the personal relationship, he would not have faith.
This truth is demonstrated beautifully in the following:
I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
See how the believer’s faith and salvation is in response to the personal outreach by God? Christ chooses whom to reveal God. Isn’t that an odd statement if, as many believe, Christ reveals Himself and the Father to all men? This personal relationship is demonstrated further in the following:
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”
At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”
“Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
. . . .
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”
From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
A related passage is as follows:
The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
These last two passages are so powerful because they demonstrate that no one can come to Christ unless God the Father draws him to Christ. And this drawing is not just a wooing, similar to an owner whistling for his dog. No, this drawing requires God to enable the person to believe. This enabling is what is described above as the spiritual rebirth by the Spirit. But notice what Christ said above . . . He said that if God draws a person, that person will come to Christ because he recognizes Christ’s voice and will follow Him. And when God draws someone, Christ says He will raise him up on the last day. These passages do not say, as many believe, that God draws all men. To the contrary, these passages clearly state that all whom God draws Christ saves. God’s drawing is effectual.
CONCEPT 6: A TANGLED DANCE
After all of that, one might conclude that God forces some into Heaven and leaves others who are helpless in their sins, which sounds like an unjust God. But that is not what is happening. Man is neither forced to sin nor forced to believe. Both in sin and in faith, man does so of his own will. What I am trying to point out is that such will is not “free” as commonly understood.
As shown above, scripture is clear that when an unregenerate man sins, he does so of his own sinful desires–when he sins, he truly wants to sin. It’s not like he is conflicted between righteousness and evil, because without the Spirit he cannot even understand what righteousness is. He is spiritually blinded. It is important to understand that God does not make that person sin. But the blindness is a result of the sinful condition into which he is born as a result of the Fall.
What everything discussed above demonstrates is God redeeming His people, just as He did with Israel, by drawing and recreating them by the Holy Spirit. God removes the blindness from His people so that they are then free to willingly follow Him. This is why Jesus says He knows those who are His because they hear His voice and follow Him. This is because God shines the light of the Spirit into their previously darkened hearts. God removes their hearts of stone and replaces them with hearts of flesh.
Predestination does not mean that God forces people to believe. What God does is restores the light of righteousness in the darkened hearts of fallen man. By that light, sinful man is then freed from blindness and bondage to sin and can now see and hear Christ. Their eyes have been opened and their ears have been unstopped. They are no more robots than Adam and Eve were prior to the Fall.
Once the Spirit dwells within the man, he then has two natures at work within him–the sinful nature and the spiritual nature. Paul describes these natures as warring against each other:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.
This is a unique condition as compared to the unbeliever, because the unbeliever does not have the Spirit in him (see Roman 8). But if the Spirit dwells within man, he overcomes his sinful nature. God promises this conquest:
Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
2 Corinthians 1:21-22.
So, in conclusion, the believer is not dragged into Heaven kicking and screaming. He follows Christ willingly, but his faith is in a tangled dance with the Holy Spirit. Following Christ is possible only because God opened his eyes by the Spirit, and perseverance requires the guiding hand of the Spirit. But reborn man consciously chooses between the influence of the Spirit and the flesh, as Paul describes.
What is missing in all of this is why God chooses one over another to regenerate, just as He chose Israel over all the other Nations on the Earth. We do not know the answer to that because it is not revealed in scripture. We do know that all men start in the same sinful condition, so His choice among men is not based upon inherent goodness. We are told repeatedly that nothing good is in man in his sinful nature. Consequently, we also know that He does not base His choice on His foreknowledge of how we will respond to the Gospel before He regenerates us, because, as demonstrated above, no one seeks God in the sinful nature. Sinful man while in bondage to sin is unable to submit to God or discern anything of the Spirit. So, we are left with an unknown. But as Moses said:
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.