Man’s Freedom and Responsibility*

Esteemed Members of the Curatorium, Candidates, and Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ:

I have taken my lecture along; so maybe I will read parts of it. I do this, not because I like to read, but because, in the first place, I don’t want to speak too long; and in the second place, I don’t want to say anything in this evening hour that is probably not true.

My introduction, which is, nevertheless, a proper introduction to my subject, is, perhaps, in your esti­mation, somewhat pessimistic. But it is nevertheless very realistic. It is this. There is, as is well known to you all, a general rumor in our churches that there is going to be a split.

With regard to this I wish to say, first of all, that my personal attitude and my personal feeling towards that rumor, which is very real, is that I think a split certainly must be regarded as very deplorable. I ought to know better than any of you, because I went through a split of the church in 1924. And I assure you that it is not a pleasure, but a very real and pro­found suffering to go through a split of the church. And I think it would cause me more suffering to ex­perience a split in our Protestant Reformed Churches than the suffering I went through when the Christian Reformed Churches cast me out in 1924.

Nevertheless, I must say more. And that is this. If there is a split, it must come, and no one can ever prevent it. If there is no split, we certainly should not make one. But if there is in reality and essenti­ally in our midst, as Protestant Reformed Churches, a split, that split should not only come, but should come as soon as possible, lest the corruption eat in our churches like a canker. That is my conviction.

And, if you ask me whether, then, there are signs or phenomena which indicate that a split actually ex­ists, I answer that I am afraid sometimes that what Professor Holwerda wrote to the churches in Canada was after all probably true, namely that there is quite a different sound in our churches.

This is connected with my lecture.

That different sound is expressed in many, many ways, but principally concentrates around a new em­phasis in our churches on man, instead of on God. There are those who claim that after all the Christian Reformed Churches in 1924 were probably correct when they said that I and the Reverend Danhof, who were both cast out at that time, were one-sided. And that the one-sidedness consisted in this, that they laid too much emphasis on God, and not sufficient empha­sis on man. In other words, we refused,—and we still refuse, by the way,—to subscribe to a double track theology: Man and God, each running his own track. I am afraid that there are signs of a real split in our churches,—and God forbid that it be true, and that it be realized,—because of the very determined oppo­sition against such a thoroughly Reformed and Pro­testant Reformed document as the Declaration of Prin­ciples. I am afraid that there is a split in our church­es when I hear sounds that speak of and emphasize responsibility of man, and a moral choice; which claim that our preaching has been too passive, and that we must be active, and that our preaching must stimu­late activity.

When I listen to all these sounds, I tremble, and Pm afraid. But I say we certainly must not have a split if no split exists! On the other hand, if the split exists, we must have it!

That is connected with my subject. My subject is: “The freedom of Man and His Responsibility.” I first thought of treating this subject in a synthetic and logical way, so that I would divide the subject somewhat as follows: I. Its Idea; II. Its Implication; III. Its Manifestation. But for practical reasons, and because I think it is more understandable,—and the subject somewhat difficult,—I finally decided to follow the historical and analytical scheme. And, therefore, when I speak on “Man’s Freedom and His Responsi­bility,” I will follow this line: I. In the State of Rec­titude; II. In His Fallen State; and, III. In the State of Perfection.

I. In the State of Rectitude.

What is responsibility? I think that this is a ques­tion that ought to be answered, and that is answered very seldom by those that speak of responsibility most often. Responsibility is the ability and obligation of the rational, moral creature to respond to God. That is responsibility: his ability, as well as his obligation, to respond to God.

Man is, in distinction from God, always under the law. And under the law he always hears, whether he answers positively or negatively, the Word of God: “Love Me. Love Me with all thy heart, with all thy mind, with all thy soul, and with all thy strength. And, love me with all thy needs, and in all the world and with all creation.” And, I say, no matter wheth­er you talk of responsibility or do not talk of respon­sibility, you can never deny it. Responsibility is no problem. It cannot be a problem for the simple rea­son that man can never ignore it, and can never avoid answer, to respond to God under the law. He must say either Yes or No, and he can never avoid it.

Now then, in connection with this responsibility stands, of course, man’s freedom. And there are those that have the idea that those of the Calvinistic or Reformed faith cannot speak of man’s freedom and of his responsibility because they emphasize the coun­sel of God. They are, of course, the Pelagians and the Arminians. There are others, however, who call themselves Reformed, and think that they belong to the Reformed churches, that conceive of God and the responsibility and moral freedom of man as two parallel lines,—a double track, two parallel lines that never meet as far as eye can see. I say they are the double track theologians. And that double track theology we as Protestant Reformed Churches have rejected in 1924, and still we must have nothing of it. The real and Scriptural conception of the relation between man’s responsibility and man’s freedom, on the one hand, and the sovereign counsel of God, on the other hand, is this, that the freedom and the responsibility of man are hemmed in from every side by the counsel of God. Have before your mind a circle, representing the counsel of God. In that counsel of God stands the morally free and responsible creature that is called man; and that counsel of God hems him in on every side. It is not so, therefore, that there are two paral­lel lines, but so that man in his moral relation to God is dependent even as a moral creature. Even in his moral thoughts he is dependent upon God. He is not sovereignly free. Man can never be sovereignly free. God only is sovereignly free! And man is forevermore dependent, even as a moral creature, upon God! Further, man is not only dependent upon God in His counsel; but he is dependent upon God, as a moral creature he is dependent upon God in His almighty providence. It is not only so that God abstractly determines the moral freedom and responsibility of man, while in actuality man stands independent. God in His providence rules and governs man’s every act, his every thought, his every desire. The king’s heart is in the hand of God as the river of waters: He turneth it whithersoever He wills.

Man is morally free. O yes! Free? In what sense?

In a formal sense, beloved, moral freedom means that whatever God’s counsel and whatever God’s al­mighty providence determines with regard to man, that man is nevertheless always the conscious and moral and willing subject of all his actions. That is, in the formal sense freedom is the state of the crea­ture in which he is willing and conscious subject of all his actions without compulsion from without. God never touches that moral freedom. That this is Scrip­tural is evident from every part of the Bible. Let me quote just one or two passages if I may. First of all I wish to refer you to Isaiah 10:15: “Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith?” That’s the king of Assyria. The king of Assyria boasted. He didn’t know anything about it, did not feel at all that he was the tool of God, felt himself perfectly free in all his actions. Yet listen: “Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth there­with? or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? as if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up, or as if the staff should lift up itself, as if it were no wood.” That’s God with His counsel and with His almighty providence hem­ming in and limiting from every side the moral crea­ture that is called the king of Assyria. And although God in His almighty providence and eternal counsel determines,—as if it were the saw that is drawn, and the axe wherewith the Lord hews,—determines every man, nevertheless he stands there consciously and willingly lifting himself up against the Lord of hosts. The same is true, by the way, as you well know, in the words of Acts 2:23, the well known words where the apostle speaks of the eternal counsel of God and the wicked crucifixion as follows; “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknow­ledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands crucified and slain.” God’s counsel determined the crucifixion. God’s counsel determined every thought and every act of the men that crucified Him. Yet, they took him by wicked hands, and slew Him. That’s Scripture.

Adam’s freedom was more than that in the state of rectitude.

Adam’s freedom was not only a formal freedom, so that he was a conscious and willing subject of all his actions. But he was also materially free: materi­ally free in the relative sense. By material freedom I mean that state of the moral, rational creature in which he is also able to love God with all his heart and mind and soul and strength. Adam was not only created a moral, rational creature, so that in all his actions he was consciously and willingly before God; but Adam was also endowed with the image of God. He stood in true knowledge of God, so that he did actually love God. He stood in positive righteousness, so that it was really his inmost desire to keep the law of God. He stood in perfect holiness, so that in all his desires and in all his actions and in all his emo­tions and in all his inclinations he was consecrated to God.

Only, Adam’s freedom was not the highest free­dom. As it is expressed in a Latin phrase, his freedom was posse non peccare, to be able not to sin, et peccare, and also to sin. Mind you, that Latin phrase is not quite correct. The freedom of Adam did not consist in the fact that he could simply choose, so that he was in a sort of neutral position and so that he could choose to serve God and not to serve God. No, his freedom in as far as he did possess freedom con­sisted in the fact that he did love God, that he could keep the law of God, that he could serve Him. And the limitation upon his freedom was exactly this, that that freedom was not rooted in the Son of God, but was rooted in his own will. That was his limitation.

That was also Adam’s responsibility. Adam’s re­sponsibility was,—O, certainly, as a moral, rational creature he could respond to God, and did respond to God; he had to respond to God. But his responsibility was higher than that. It was also this, that he did love God with all his heart and mind and soul and strength in the state of rectitude. Adam was not re­sponsible for what God made him. We are never re­sponsible for what God does! God is responsible for what he does! We are never! Adam was not respon­sible for what God made him, though He did not im­mediately make him free in the highest sense of the word. Adam could not say to God,—and, in fact, he never had it in his mind to say to God,—“Why hast

Thou made me thus?” That was God’s business. But Adam’s responsibility was,—and that responsibility he could fulfill as a free moral creature, formally and materially,—to love the Lord his God with all his heart and mind and soul and strength, and with all the works over which God had placed him. That was responsibility in the state of rectitude.

II. In His Fallen State.

But man fell. Man fell!

We must not imagine that we are through with the problem of responsibility when we have talked about the relation between the moral creature and God’s counsel, or between the moral creature and God’s pro­vidence. We must not imagine that the problem of man’s responsibility ends there. The problem becomes much more serious and becomes much more profound when we begin to speak of man’s responsibility in the state of sin.

Man fell! That’s the problem. Of course, the Pelagian, the most superficial Pelagian, who is always individualistic, and at the same time is the most mod­ernistic of all theologians,—the Pelagian denies (and that’s why he tries to save the responsibility of the fallen man), he denies that man’s fall was really such that he became dead in sin and trespasses. He denies that. Man, he says, still has a free will. Of course, if you attribute to man a free will, or any degree of free will, it seems as if you have no problem in regard to man’s responsibility. I say: it seems. It isn’t true. But, nevertheless, according to the Pelagian, man is not dead. He is probably weakened. He is probably sick. But he is not dead in sin and trespasses. That is why, according to him, man is still a responsible being, who can choose either-or, yes or no, against or for God; and therefore, he is responsible.

The Arminian does not go quite so far. I say this all simply because I want to put before you the real problem, so that you do not skirmish with terms that you don’t know anything about. O, it is so easy to talk about responsibility. And I am afraid that most people that talk about responsibility don’t know what they are talking about. The Arminian says: “No, man is dead in sin and trespasses; but he can still will to be saved. That is why you have some contact with him. You can address him in the gospel as a moral creature, with moral responsibility, and moral freedom.” Don’t you see? You can present to him a general offer of salvation. That was also 1924,—something which we rejected as churches. You can offer him a general promise. He can take it, or he can refuse it. But you address him! You address all men as rational and moral creatures that are able to will salvation! That’s Arminianism! That’s not Re­formed!

Reformed is this:

1)    That man, fallen man, is responsible for his own corruption. That’s Reformed! Man is responsible that he is corrupt. That is Re­formed, and that is Biblical!

2)    That in that state of corruption he neverthe­less acts as a moral, rational, conscious, willing creat­ure.

3)    That in that state of corruption he is bound to evil, so that his state is expressed from of old,— and again, I want to criticize that a little bit; but neverthe­less it will stand,—by the Latin phrase: non posse non peccare, not to be able not to sin. You must remem­ber that when you talk about the moral choice of man to your audience. When you address man individ­ually you do not address an audience that is willing and able to hear and to receive the gospel of salvation. You cannot! Remember that!

Let me explain.

Adam fell. That means that he became guilty. Guilt means liability to death. God said to man: “The day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” That Word of God was fulfilled. Adam died. He died! Wherein did he die? He didn’t live. He doesn’t live anymore. He has no life. He is in death. He is in death with the whole creation. The whole creation that fell with him lies in the bondage of corruption. And man, at the head of the creation, lies in utter death. That death includes the corruption of his moral nature.

But we must emphasize a little more. When we say that man fell, we must understand this: man fell. That’s Reformed. That is also denied by the Pela­gians. That is according to the Word of God, as you all know. In Adam the whole human race fell: not Adam alone, but the whole human race fell in Adam. That is, the whole human race became guilty, and the whole human race became corrupt because of its guilt. Once more I say: that is also denied by the Pelagian, the very superficial, the individualistic, the modernistic Pelagian, that always emphasizes man rather than God. I always say, beloved: Give me God, if I must make a choice. If I must make a choice to lose God or man, give me God. Let me lose man. It’s all right to me: no danger there. Give me God! That’s Reformed! And that’s especially Protestant Reformed! Give me God: there is no sal­vation in man! But the Pelagian says, beloved, su­perficially: man is still free. He did not sin in Adam. He did not become guilty in Adam. He did not be­come corrupt in Adam. He is still free. O, he is weak; and, what is more, he is liable to imitate in his freedom a bad example. There are bad examples all over, so you must really take him out of his environment. Modernism! Through and through modern­ism! All because of a wrong conception of responsi­bility.

What is the responsibility of fallen man?

Beloved, I would say in this connection,—and you can work it out if you want to. It’s worthwhile. But please don’t speak in a superficial way anymore of responsibility. Work it out.—I can speak of the re­sponsibility of the fallen man in three ways.

In the first place, there is corporate responsibility. By that I mean, beloved, that we are all responsible for the sin which Adam committed in paradise. That is our sin, and we are responsible for that sin. That’s the Word of God. I really don’t have to read it to you. Read Romans 5: “By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin, and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” All have sinned when? In paradise. That is where we sinned. That is where we became guilty. Or, if you please, read the 18th verse: “By one man judgment came upon all men to condemnation.” That’s judicial. That’s legal. So there is corporate responsibility. You may deny it, of course. In the proud Pelagianism of your wicked heart you may say: I have nothing to do with the sin of Adam. But you can never escape it. God judges you and me guilty by nature of the sin Adam committed, because He created the human race a cor­poration with Adam as its Head. Corporate respon­sibility!

In the second place, there is organic responsibility. By that I mean that even as Adam became guilty, and therefore, corrupt, so we become guilty in him, and corrupt in him. The corrupt tree brings forth corrupt fruit; and the corrupt stock brings forth corrupt branches. And yet we are responsible for our cor­rupt nature. That’s hard, isn’t it? That’s hard. Yes, but we are talking about responsibility in the light of Scripture, aren’t we? We don’t talk about responsi­bility in the superficial, philosophical sense. We’re talking about responsibility in the light of the Bible. That’s Scripture. We are responsible for our own corrupt nature which we nevertheless have received from Adam because from him and in him we also re­ceived his guilt. You say to God: “Why hast Thou made me thus?” God doesn’t answer. He is God! You are a creature! But that’s the truth!

And, thirdly, there is, of course, individual respon­sibility. By that I mean the responsibility of man for his own moral actions. For in that corrupt nature he still stands…That’s the trouble. No, that’s not the trouble. But that’s the relation nevertheless. In that corrupt nature, which he received from Adam, and which he received on the basis of the fact that he is found guilty in Adam’s sin, in that corrupt nature he still, nevertheless, stands with a moral choice. As a rational, moral being, who can only do sin, never will desire anything but sin! Non posse non peccare,—that’s his state and that’s his responsibility. Not to be able not to sin, because from an inward impulse, and not from an outward compulsion, he loves the darkness rather than the light. And God holds him responsible.

III. In the State of Perfection.

Nor, beloved, is the problem solved when you sim­ply speak of the counsel of God and the providence of God in relation to man’s freedom and responsibil­ity, or when you speak simply of man’s total deprav­ity and corruption. There is still another fact. The problem still remains when you speak of sovereign grace. You have responsibility and moral freedom. Also that problem remains. Don’t you see in all Scrip­ture that against all Scripture has been raised the ob­jection that God by sovereign grace justifies the un­godly? That is salvation: God justifies the ungodly. And He gives no account! O, I look forward, I look forward in faith to the time of the complete Theodicy! Theodicy means justification of God in the moral consciousness of the moral creature. And when I speak of the Theodicy, I make God the subject, and the predicate righteous justification, the act of God. In other words, we do not justify God. God justifies Himself! That’s sufficient. I do not have to solve the problem of Scripture concerning God’s righteous­ness with regard to evil and sin and man and damna­tion and salvation. O, how could I attempt even to approach that problem. All we have to do is to preach the Scripture. But I take Scripture in the hope, the sure hope, that God will justify Himself also in my consciousness by His Spirit, so that I may then see face to face.

But that is a problem, don’t you see? Don’t you see that justification means emphatically that the justified ones are not responsible for their sins? That is justification! I am not responsible for my sins before God. I am not! Christ is! Christ is respon­sible for my sins. I cast all my guilt on Him by faith. And don’t you ever tell your congregation that they are responsible for their own sins. God forbid! You are a bad shepherd if you do. You must tell the con­gregation to cast their sins upon Christ. Tell them that they are no more responsible for their sins. Tell them that, by all means! You say that this is a dan­gerous doctrine? Of course it isn’t. It seems that way, but it isn’t. It seems that way. That was always the objection. That was always the objection against the Biblical conception of justification. Always! Don’t forget that. That was already the ob­jection in the Scriptures, when Paul, according to the inspiration of the Spirit, had developed the doctrine of justification. They finally came then and said: “What shall we say then? what shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” That is where the objection is raised in the Heidelberg Catechism: not against the counsel of God, but exact­ly against and in connection with the doctrine of jus­tification. The objection is raised: “Does not this doc­trine make men careless and profane?” What will you tell your congregation? Would you tell them: Yes, yes, yes…but, but, but? God forbid! Will you tell your congregation: O, you’re not responsible for your sins; Christ is responsible, but…but…but you must do something too? God forbid! You kill them! You kill the people of God by such preaching! That’s not true. That’s not Scripture. That’s not the Confessions. That’s not the Heidelberg Catechism. The Heidelberg Catechism says: No, sir: just this doc­trine of absolutely free justification, that casts all the responsibility of my individual sins upon Christ, does not make me careless and profane. It answers: That is impossible! Why is it impossible? Because he that is justified by faith is also sanctified by faith, and, therefore, says spontaneously when you tell him that now he can sin as he pleases: “God forbid! How shall I who am dead to sin live any longer therein?” That is the answer, the only answer.

That is the Christian’s responsibility. The Chris­tian is free in the highest sense of the word.

Formally free; O yes. But also materially free in the highest possible sense of the word, because his freedom is rooted no longer in his own free will, but is rooted in the Son of God. And if the Son of God shall make you free, then you are free indeed. That is freedom. And that at the same time is the highest responsibility.

Don’t you ever give the congregation a moral les­son! What you must have is the gospel of the freedom in Jesus Christ our Lord! When you preach that gospel, the gospel of the cross in all its fruits, there is no danger of leading the congregation in ways of laxity and passivity. On the contrary, that congrega­tion, standing in the freedom of Christ, will be strong and fight the good fight of faith even unto the end, looking forward to the hope eternal, when all that is of sin shall have been destroyed and when freedom shall have been perfected.

Freedom and responsibility! And in that everlast­ing freedom man, the redeemed man, shall forever thank God for His sovereign grace, and respond and say: “O God, I love Thee.”

I have said.                                                  


*Address delivered by the Rector, Rev. H. Hoeksema, at the commencement exercises of our Theological School, June 9, 1953.