Previous article in this series: November 15, 2020, p. 90.

The Free Will Is Weak in the Regenerate.

Secondly, in the regenerate a weakness remains. For since sin dwells in us, and in the regenerate the flesh struggles against the Spirit till the end of our lives, they do not easily accomplish in all things what they had planned. These things are confirmed by the apostle in Romans 7 and Galatians 5. Therefore, that free will is weak in us on account of the remnants of the old Adam and of innate human corruption remaining in us until the end of our lives. Meanwhile, since the powers of the flesh and the remnants of the old man are not so efficacious that they wholly extinguish the work of the Spirit, for that reason the faithful are said to be free, yet so that they acknowledge their infirmity and do not glory at all in their free will. For believers ought always to keep in mind what St. Augustine so many times inculcated according to the apostle: “What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” To this he adds that what we have planned does not immediately come to pass. For the issue of things lies in the hand of God. This is the reason Paul prayed to the Lord to prosper his journey (Rom. 1:10). And this also is the reason the free will is weak.


Weakness of the renewed will of the regenerate

The “secondly” with which this paragraph of the Second Helvetic Confession (SHC) begins connects it to what has preceded. In the preceding paragraph, Bullinger had said that there are two things to be observed. The first, which he addressed in that paragraph is that “the regenerate, in choosing and doing good, work not only passively but actively.” In this paragraph, he takes up his second observation. Although the will of the regenerate has been restored, their renewed will remains weak. That weakness is not due to some flaw in God’s work of regeneration. Rather, it is because “sin [still] dwells in us,” with the result that “in the regenerate the flesh struggles against the Spirit.” Though we are renewed, “the remnants of the old Adam and of innate human corruption [remain] in us until the end of our lives.”

This is the experience of every born-again child of God. To be sure, it is clearly the teaching of Scripture. But the truth of Scripture is reflected in the experience of every Christian.

Although he does not cite specific verses in the Bible, Bullinger references two significant chapters in the Word of God. Reading through these chapters, which I would suggest that you do, it is not difficult to determine which verses he has in mind.

The first chapter is the well known seventh chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Romans. It is significant that along with the other Reformers, Bullinger viewed Romans 7 as a passage in which the apostle Paul relates his experience after his conversion. The heretic Jacob Arminius interpreted Romans 7 as relating the apostle’s experience prior to his conversion. He did so in the interests of maintaining the very error that this chapter of the SHC is concerned to reject, the error of free will. According to Arminius and his followers down to the present day, when Paul says in Romans 7:18, “for to will is present with me,” he is talking about an ability that he had before he was regenerated. It is clear, however, that Paul is talking about his experience following his regeneration. As a regenerated, Spirit-indwelt child of God, although he willed to do that which is good, he did not actually do it (Rom. 7:18). Although he delighted in the law of God “after the inward man,” he confesses that he sees “another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom. 7:22-23). Because of this spiritual struggle, he cries out, “O wretched man that I am!” (Rom. 7:24).

We find something similar in Galatians 5. In verse 16, Paul admonishes the Galatian Christians, “Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.” The Spirit and the flesh in the child of God are constantly at war. The apostle goes on to say in verse 17, “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these two are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.” Later in the chapter, Paul says, “And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts [thereof]” (Gal. 5:24).


Life-long struggle for the Christian

Significantly, this paragraph in the SHC speaks of the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit in the child of God as a life-long struggle. So long as we live, this fierce, spiritual battle goes on. There is no ceasefire nor is there an armistice. The battle is ongoing, day after weary day, whether we are on the job, in our home, at school, or in church on Sunday. As the Heidelberg Catechism says in its explanation of the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “our mortal enemies, the devil, the world, and our own flesh cease not to assault us” (A. 127). It has always struck me as a pastor that whenever I talked with the older members of the church, some of whom had experienced many losses and griefs in their earthly lives, they never talked of their hope of heaven chiefly as final deliverance from their sufferings and sorrows—all such tears being wiped from their eyes. Invariably, it was their anticipation of the battle with their sinful nature being over that was uppermost in their minds—no more tears of sorrow over sin!

Notable is the fact that Bullinger says that “the powers of the flesh and the remnants of the old man are not so efficacious that they wholly extinguish the work of the Spirit.” God’s work of grace begun in us with regeneration is always victorious. The glorious truth is that although the old Adam nature remains in us, our bondage to it has been broken. Already in this life, though for a time our sinful nature has the upper hand, the new life is victorious. We are always brought to repentance; the Spirit always has the victory over the flesh. The efficacious work of grace, which is God’s work in us, invariably triumphs. Nevertheless, the ongoing struggle between the old man and the new man, the fact that we have only a small beginning of the new and heavenly obedience, causes Christians to “acknowledge their infirmity” and “not [to] glory in their free will.”

Besides referencing Scripture in this paragraph, Bullinger again cites Augustine, who “so many times inculcated” what the apostle says in I Corinthian 4:7, “What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” The rhetorical questions that the apostle asks, underscore the truth that what we are, we are by the grace of God. What we have, we have received from Him. If the teaching of free will were true, we would have reason to boast because at least in part we did not receive but rather earned.

By appealing to Augustine, Bullinger shows that what he is teaching is not novelty, but the historic teaching of the church. At the same time, he indicates that it was not the churches of the Reformation that had departed the teaching of the fathers, but the Roman Catholic Church.

At the same time, we are reminded that in so many ways, the Reformation was a recovery of and return to the teachings of Augustine. This was true in many respects. I am reminded of what Calvin said: “Augustine is so much at one with me that, if I wished to write a confession of my faith, it would abundantly satisfy me to quote wholesale from his writings” (Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God).


In External Things There Is Liberty.

Moreover, no one denies that in external things both the regenerate and the unregenerate enjoy free will. For man has in common with other living creatures (to which he is not inferior) this nature to will some things and not to will others. Thus, he is able to speak or to keep silent, to go out of his house or to remain at home, etc. However, even here God’s power is always to be observed, for it was the cause that Balaam could not go as far as he wanted (Numbers 24), and Zacharias upon returning from the temple could not speak as he wanted (Luke 1).


Freedom in things external and natural

In this paragraph of the SHC, Bullinger makes plain that the Reformed denial of free will concerns things spiritual. Fallen as he is, no man can choose that which is spiritually good and pleasing to God. From a spiritual point of view, his will is bound. That spiritual bondage is due to the fact that he is spiritually dead in trespasses and sins, as the apostle teaches in Ephesians 2:1.

From a natural point of view, man is free. His decisions, choices, and actions are not compelled by God— God, as it were, forcing him to decide, to choose, or to act in a certain way. Bullinger says that “no one denies that in external things both the regenerate and the unregenerate enjoy free will.” And he speaks of the fact that “man has in common with other living creatures… this nature to will some things and not to will others.” He gives two examples from everyday life. A man may choose to speak or to keep silent; a man may choose to go out of his house or to remain at home. Those examples apply as much to the sixteenth century as they do to the twenty-first century. Other examples would include choosing to walk to work, to drive his car, to carpool, or to take public transport to work each morning. If he chose to drive his own car, he could choose to turn or to go straight at the stop signs he confronts along the way.


God’s power observed

Even though Bullinger maintains the freedom of men in things natural, he goes on to circumscribe man’s freedom by the power of God: “However, even here God’s power is always to be observed.” Although God does not compel man in the choices that he makes, forcing him to do that which he does not want to do, there are two important qualifications to observe. Both qualifications have to do with “God’s power.”

In the first place, the power of God in His providential government of all things is to be observed. According to His providence, God restricts the choices of men. No person living in the sixteenth century could choose to turn or to go straight at a stop sign simply because the automobile had not yet been invented. God in His providence had not yet caused Henry Ford to be born and to invent the “horseless carriage.” There are unending examples of the providential power of God by which He limits the choices that human beings can make. In the two examples that Bullinger gives, God in His providence might limit whether a man speaks or keeps silent by the fact he is unable to speak because he has suffered the ravages of throat cancer. Or, God might limit a man’s choice of going out or remaining in his home by the fact that He has sent a hurricane, which has destroyed his home.

In the second place, the power of God’s decree is to be observed. This aspect of God’s power clearly limits the choices of human beings. Even though God does not compel us in our choices, He nevertheless has determined all things, including the choices we make in our natural life. On the one hand, it is true that we freely choose to speak or to keep silent, as Bullinger says. But this is not to deny that God in His eternal decree has determined whether we will speak or keep silent. He determined that at his trial Stephen would speak up, recite Israel’s history, accuse the wicked Jews of being the murderers of the Lord Jesus Christ, and stir them up to stone him (Acts 6 and 7). He also determined that Peter’s mother-in-law would be ill and unable to leave her sickbed, so that Jesus would go into the house of Simon Peter and heal her (Mark 1:29-31).

In both respects, God’s power always limits the choices of human beings. That they choose, what they choose, and the outcome of their choices have all been determined by God and come to pass according to the providence of God.



In this matter we condemn the Manichaeans who deny that the beginning of evil for man [who had been created] good, was from [the abuse of] his free will. We also condemn the Pelagians who assert that an evil man has sufficient free will to do the good that is commanded. Both are refuted by Holy Scripture which says to the former, “God made man upright” (Ecclesiastes 7:29) and to the latter, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).


The heresy of the Manichaeans

In previous paragraphs, Bullinger has cited Augustine in support of his teaching. But before Augustine was converted to Christianity, he was a member of the sect of the Manichaeans. Among other things, the Manichaeans were dualists. They taught that there have always been two competing, eternal principles in the world, the principle of good and the principle of evil.

Part of the dualism of the Manichaeans was their denial that in the beginning God created all things good. It was only in consequence of man’s abuse of the free will with which God had created him that sin entered the world. They contradicted the account of the creation and fall of man into sin, as it is recorded in Genesis 1-3. And they contradicted the teaching of the inspired apostle in Romans 5:12, that it was “by one man [that] sin entered into the world, and death by sin.”

Abusing the freedom of his will, Adam chose for Satan against God; chose to disobey God rather than to obey His command; chose to believe the lie of the devil instead of the truth of God; chose for friendship with the enemy of God rather than the friendship of God. The result of that fateful choice, according to the decree of God, was that man fell away from God and into sin. This first sin was the origin of all other sins. Rebelling against the revealed will of God, man brought upon himself and the whole human race the curse of God. Now death reigned over man and over the entire earthly creation.

The creation, therefore, is not inherently evil, as was the teaching of some at the time of the Reformation, and therefore to be avoided. This was the teaching of Roman Catholic monasticism and of the Anabaptists. Instead, the creation is inherently good and to be used for the glory of God. Not the creation, but man the creature was evil.


The heresy of the Pelagians

A second error rejected by the SHC is the teaching of the Pelagians. The teaching of Pelagius was that man is born into this world neutral. He is neither good nor bad, from a spiritual and ethical point of view. After he is born, man becomes evil by making evil choices. Under the example of those around him or the influence of his environment, man exercises his free will in disobedience to God. Pelagianism denies that man’s sinful choices are the inevitable result of the sinful nature with which every man is born.

The teaching of Scripture is contrary to the Pelagian and, later, the Arminian view of free will. It is true that man makes sinful choices, but the truth of Scripture and the Reformed faith explains these sinful choices. First, man makes sinful choices because he is sinful. He does not only do sinful things, but in his very nature he is sinful— completely sinful. This is the Reformed doctrine of total depravity. Second, because of the sinfulness of his nature, man does not only occasionally or even frequently make sinful choices, and along with those sinful choices also some good choices. But that man’s nature is sinful means that his will is also sinful. And since his will is sinful, all the choices that he makes are sinful. His will is bound to sin and Satan.

The only remedy is the gracious work of God. The next chapter of the SHC takes up that gracious work of God with its beginning in God’s decree of predestination.