Does Man Have a Free Will?

Previous article in this series: September 1, 2013, p. 471.

When people hear us say that an unbeliever is spiritually dead and completely unable to do good works, they sometimes ask us whether we are denying that human beings have a free will. The answer to that question depends on which human beings you are referring to, and what you mean by free.

How our Lord explained freedom
It is important that we speak of freedom and bondage the way that Scripture does. To be in bondage is to be a servant of sin and Satan. To be free is to be liberated from this, so that we are able to do that which is good in the eyes of God.
This, of course, is not the way that sinful man views freedom. He thinks he is free when he is able to do whatever he wants. But what sinful man wants is always evil. And for a man to pursue the evil that he wants is not to be free, but to be enslaved.
Jesus pointed this out when responding to some Jews who denied that they were in bondage. Jesus had just finished saying that those who continued in His word were truly His disciples, and that His disciples would know the truth, and that the truth would set them free. To this these Jews responded, and said: “We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?” (John 8:33b).

Jesus then explained that the freedom He was talking about was a spiritual freedom. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin” (John 8:34).

So if we are going to speak of freedom the way our Lord did, we will say that to have a free will is to have a will that is not enslaved to sin. It is to have a righteous and holy will that brings forth the fruit of good actions.

How the will is freed

So how does the will of a person become freed? Scrip­ture and our confessions teach that our will becomes freed when God “infuses new qualities into the will” (Canons 3/4, 11).

Our Canons go on to express what those new qualities are: “God infuses new qualities of faith, of obedience, and of the consciousness of His love into our hearts” (Canons 3/4, B, 6).

The first reference speaks of God infusing something into our will, and the second speaks of God infusing something into our heart. The two statements together teach that when God infuses something into our heart, He infuses it into our will.

To prove that this infusing really does take place, our fathers quoted a number of Scripture passages. The first one they refer to is a passage from Jeremiah that speaks of God putting His word in our hearts: “After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts” (Jer. 31:33b).

When God regenerates us, the word of God really does enter our heart. And it is because God’s word is in our heart that we are now able to begin to do what that word says: “But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it” (Deut. 30:14).

It is in this way that God infuses new qualities of faith, obedience, and a consciousness of His love into our hearts. When God’s word is in our heart, we believe in God. We know Him, love Him, and are free to do what His word says.

The unregenerate, however, do not have God’s word in their heart. When Christ spoke to some unbelievers, He  said: “ye seek to kill me, because my word hath no place in you” (John 8:37).

God’s word was not in the heart of these people. That explains why they hated what God said to them. First God puts His word in our heart, and only then do we love Him, listen to Him, and strive to do what pleases Him.

Only the “good trees” have a free will

It is when these new qualities have been infused into a person, that the individual becomes a good tree, able to produce good fruit. The Canons say that God “infuses new qualities into the will, which, though here­tofore dead, He quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, He renders it good, obedient, and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree it may bring forth the fruits of good actions” (Canons 3/4, 11).

Here we have yet another passage in our confessions that clearly speaks of how only those who have been regenerated can do good works. Something must be in­fused into us first, so that we go from being corrupt trees that produce only corrupt fruit, to being good trees that “bring forth the fruit of good actions.”

So the regenerated or “good trees” are the only ones who have a free will. By nature they were dead trees that were in the bondage of corruption. But God has raised them from the dead, quickening their dead will, so that now they are freed from corruption, and are able to pro­duce fruit that is truly good.

We believers confess that Christ, the Truth, really has set us free. And the more we come to hear the truth preached, and believe that truth preached, the more that we experience the joy of that freedom.

This is the true freedom. As our Lord Himself said: “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).

We are free indeed! Free to do what is pleasing to God, which is also what we genuinely desire to do in the new man. May we rejoice as those truly liberated, and show our love and thankfulness to our God by continuing in His word, that we might ever more so experience the liberating power of the truth, as it is applied to our heart by Christ’s Spirit.