Of free will, and thus of human powers (Second Helvetic Confession, 9b)

Previous article in this series: April 15, 2020, p. 327.

Man Is Not Capable of Good Per Se

In regard to goodness and virtue man’s reason does not judge rightly of itself concerning divine things. For the evangelical and apostolic Scripture requires regeneration of whoever among us wishes to be saved. Hence our first birth from Adam contributes nothing to our salvation. Paul says: “The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:14). And in another place he denies that we of our­selves are capable of thinking anything good (2 Cor. 3:5). Now it is known that the mind or intellect is the guide of the will, and when the guide is blind, it is obvious how far the will reaches. Wherefore, man not yet regenerate has no free will for good, no strength to perform what is good. The Lord says in the Gospel: “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). And the apostle Paul says: “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot” (Rom. 8:7). Yet in regard to earthly things, fallen man is not entirely lacking in understanding.

In chapter 9 of the Second Helvetic Confession, Heinrich Bullinger sets forth the Reformation’s rejection of free will. In doing so, he adds his voice to that of Martin Luther and John Calvin, as well as to other confessions in the Reformed creedal tradition. The Reformed faith rejected root and branch the false teaching of free will, which was defended by the Roman Catholic Church and its theologians, most notably Desiderius Erasmus. Behind Rome’s teaching of the meritorious value of human works was the teaching that the natural man, with some divine assistance, was capable of that which was good—truly good in the sight of God. Rome based this error on the teaching of free will. Rome taught that man in himself, by virtue of his own free will, is at the very least capable of desiring and choosing that which is good. More than that, he can do that which is truly good—good in the sight of God. This false doctrine, which stood at the foundation of the whole superstructure of Roman Catholicism, was unanimously rejected by the Reformers.

In this paragraph and in those that follow, the SHC strikes the sharpest of contrasts. On the one hand, the confession speaks of “our first birth from Adam” and that of which “man not yet regenerate” is capable ac­cording to his natural birth. On the other hand, the confession contrasts our natural birth with the new birth, or “regeneration.” Some ten times in this and the following paragraphs of chapter 9, the SHC refers to regeneration, insisting on the necessity of regeneration if man is to desire and do that which is good in the eyes of God. This paragraph of chapter 9 echoes the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 3, Q&A 8: “Are we then so corrupt that we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness? In­deed, we are, except we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.” Regeneration is necessary, absolutely necessary. Apart from regeneration, man cannot do that which is truly good.

In this paragraph, Bullinger insists that “the evan­gelical and apostolic Scripture requires regeneration,” since “our first birth from Adam contributes nothing to our salvation.” Hence, “man not yet regenerated has no free will for good, no strength to perform what is good.” From a spiritual point of view, man’s will is not free, but bound. Over against the heresy of free will, the SHC insists on the biblical truth of the bondage of the will of natural man.

In his rejection of free will, Bullinger and the oth­er Reformers were reflecting the teaching of Scripture. The rejection of free will is not only the necessary impli­cation of the Bible’s teaching concerning the Fall and its consequences, although it certainly is. But the rejection of free will is grounded in the express teaching of sacred Scripture. Scripture is the authority, the only authority in the church. That conviction of the Reformers was no more clearly exhibited than in their rejection of free will. In this third paragraph of chapter 9, Bullinger ap­peals to four passages of Scripture as the basis for his rejection of free will: 1 Corinthians 2:14; 2 Corinthians 3:5; John 8:34; and Romans 8:7. The collective testimony of these four passages of Scripture is not only that the natural man does not do that which is right and pleasing to God. They teach that the natural man can­not do that which is right and good. The issue concerns man’s ability. In himself, apart from the regenerating grace of God, “man is not capable of good per se,” as the title of this paragraph states.

Understanding of the Arts

For God in his mercy has permitted the powers of the intellect to remain, though differing greatly from what was in man before the fall. God commands us to cultivate our natural talents, and meanwhile adds both gifts and success. And it is obvious that we make no progress in all the arts without God’s blessing. In any case, Scripture refers all the arts to God; and, indeed, the heathen trace the origin of the arts to the gods who invented them.

Frequently throughout history, the proponents of free will, rather than submit to the testimony of Scripture, appeal to extra-biblical “evidence” for the goodness of natural man. By extension they apply that goodness to include the will of fallen man. One of the main extra- biblical proofs is appeal to the products of culture. The monuments of culture, they argue, prove that the natural man is capable of good—much good. The fourth paragraph of chapter 9 anticipates the appeal to culture as an indication that fallen man is able to produce that which is truly good, good in the eyes of God, apart from grace. The paragraph speaks of “the powers of intellect” that fallen man possesses. It further refers to “natural talents” that fallen man possesses, to which God “adds both gifts and success.” It alleges “progress in all the arts [with] God’s blessing.” And it “refers all the arts to God,” adding that even “the heathen trace the origin of the arts to the gods who invented them.” Bullinger’s discussion of the arts and culture helps to qualify what the Reformed mean and what they do not mean by their denial of the freedom of the will of the natural man. When the Reformers insisted on the total depravity of fallen man, they were denying that after the Fall man possesses any spiritual goodness, any spiritual life, and any capacity to please God. They did not deny that fallen man remained a man. They taught, on the contrary, that he was as fully man after the Fall as he was prior to it. He did not become a beast or a demon, but he continued to possess everything that belonged to his humanity. To be sure, the Fall impacted even man’s natural and intellectual abilities. Even in these respects, he was not the man he had been prior to the Fall. Nevertheless, he remained a man, a rational, mor­al, thinking, and willing creature—the highest of all the creatures God had made.

This explains the accomplishments in the arts and the development of culture. The sciences, literature,

music, architecture, painting, sculpting, crafts of all sorts, inventions, learning, advances in the area of med­icine, engineering, and technology are all due to the abilities that remained in man even after his fall into sin. Man’s capacity for cultural development after the Fall is indicated by what we read of the sons of wicked Lamech in Genesis 4:19-24: Jabel the herdsman, Jubal the musician, and Tubal-Cain the artificer in metals.

After the Fall man retained his natural capacities. Only now, in his fallen state, all that man produces, all his inventions, all his cultural advances are placed in the service of sin. Culture is driven by the goal of the glory of man and the exaltation of the human race. The very fact that Scripture records that the great cultural advances took place in the generations of godless Cain is indicative of this fact. Fallen man retains his natural capacities, but his use of them is not driven by the glory of his Creator God. Rather, his abilities, whether intel­lectual, physical, or creative, are pressed into the service of man. Ultimately, they are pressed into the service of the kingdom of antichrist.

In the fourth paragraph of chapter 9 of the SHC, Bullinger speaks of man’s retention of his powers of in­tellect as due to “God in his mercy.” He also speaks of progress in the arts as something that could not have taken place “without God’s blessing.” We ought rightly to fault Bullinger for using language that is not biblically precise. He was not the only Reformer who was guilty of this. Calvin, too, at times spoke of God’s gifts to natural man as due to His “general grace.” Al­though not biblically precise language, neither Calvin nor Bullinger intended to give support to the erroneous teaching of common grace that arose much later in the history of the Reformed churches. This was not at all the Reformers’ intent as they sought to account for the good gifts that God gives even to ungodly men.

It is worth noting that Bullinger calls upon Reformed Christians to develop the talents that God has given them: “God commands us to cultivate our natural talents, and meanwhile adds both gifts and success.” Implied is the truth that each of us has been given certain talents. Ev­eryone of us is called to “cultivate” the talents that God has given to us. At the same time, God promises to crown the use of our talents with His blessing.

Of What Kind Are the Powers of the Regenerate, and in What Way Their Wills Are Free

Finally, we must see whether the regenerate have free wills, and to what extent. In regeneration the understanding is illumined by the Holy Spirit in or­der that it may understand both the mysteries and the will of God. And the will itself is not only changed by the Spirit, but it is equipped with faculties so that it wills and is able to do the good of its own accord (Rom. 8:1 ff.). Unless we grant this, we will deny Christian liberty and introduce a legal bondage. But the prophet has God saying: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts” (Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 36:26 ff.). The Lord also says in the Gospel: “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Paul also writes to the Philippians: “It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him, but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29). Again: “I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (v. 6). Also: “God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (ch. 2:13).

The first paragraph of chapter 9 of the SHC spoke of “a threefold condition or state of man.” The first state of man was his state by virtue of his good creation by God. The second state of man was his state after his fall into sin. These first two states have been treated in the opening paragraphs of chapter 9. With the fifth paragraph, Bullinger comes to the third “condition or state of man.” The third state of man is his state after grace—after the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. Before regeneration the will of man is enslaved to sin. It is a bound, not a free will. In regeneration “the will itself is not only changed by the Spirit, but it is also equipped with faculties so that it wills and is able to do the good of its own accord.” The result of regeneration is the setting free of that which was bound. That which was enslaved to sin and Satan is now liberated so that “it wills and is able to do the good.”

The regenerated child of God has the freedom of his will restored. By virtue of regeneration he again de­sires that which is good. As regenerated, he wants to please God. Out of the new life he chooses that which is right. This is the fruit of regeneration. At the same time, since this is the fruit of regeneration, this is how we may know that we are regenerated. The child of God wonders about this sometime. Am I a regenerated child of God? Does the Holy Spirit dwell in me? Do I possess the new life of Christ? The answer to these questions may be found in the answer to other ques­tions: Do I want to do that which is right? Do I want to please God? Do I want to live a life of obedience to God’s commandments? If you desire to do that which is right, that which pleases God and that which He com­mands, be assured that you are a regenerated child of God. The regenerating Spirit of Jesus Christ has liberat­ed that which was bound. You are no longer the slave of sin, but the willing servant of Christ. By the Spirit, God works in us both to will and to do His good pleasure, as Paul teaches in Philippians 2:13.

This is true freedom! True freedom is not to live as we please, but to live as God pleases. True freedom is not to do what we want, but to do what He commands. True freedom is not to live a reckless, abandoned life, fulfilling every lust of the flesh. But true freedom is to live to the glory of His grace in obedience to the law of God.

At the same time, this is also the blessed and fulfilled life. That is not the attitude of the world. The world glamorizes a life of sin and debauchery, the life of doing as we please. If it feels good, do it. No matter what the law of God says, divorce your wife and marry that other woman with whom you have fallen in love. No matter that God’s Word condemns drunkenness and drug ad­diction, so long as you do not harm anyone, drink your­self drunk and escape into the world of those who are drug addicted. No matter that the will of God calls us to live morally pure lives, whether as singles or as mar­ried persons, indulge yourself in pornography. No mat­ter that God commands that male and female should be joined in marriage, if you are attracted to someone of the same sex, do not deny who and what you are. If you are in love, who can condemn true love?

But it is the lie of the devil that they who live con­trary to God’s will enjoy happiness. True happiness is experienced only by those who conform their wills to the will of God. “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night” (Psalm 1:1, 2). All who choose sin, foolishly forfeit true and lasting joy. Real joy is experienced only by those who “delight in the law of the Lord.”

Although the fruit of regeneration is that our en­slaved wills are set free, so long as we are in this life we are not perfectly free. The fruit of regeneration is that God sweetly inclines our will so that we will His will. Nevertheless, so long as we remain in this sin-cursed world, and so long as the old man of sin remains in us, we will never perfectly will the will of God. Although chapter 9 of the SHC speaks of three states or condi­tions of man, there is in reality a fourth state. That fourth state is the state of man in glory. Only in glory will we perfectly will the will of God. Then we will not be able to will that which is contrary to God’s will. And then, at last, we will enjoy the true freedom of our will.