In this matter, which has always produced many conflicts in the Church, we teach that a threefold condition or state of man is to be considered.
What Man Was Before the Fall. There is the state in which man was in the beginning before the fall, namely, upright and free, so that he could both continue in goodness and decline to evil. However, he declined to evil, and has involved himself and the whole human race in sin and death, as has been said already.
The threefold condition of man is his condition before the Fall, his condition after the Fall, and his condition after regeneration. In his pre-fall condition, man existed as he came forth from the hand of God. By virtue of his original creation, man was upright and pure. He was created in the image of God. According to his original creation, he was made in true righteousness, holiness, and knowledge. As he came forth from the hand of his
Creator, man was made capable of willing the will of God. In the words of a later confession, the Canons of Dordt, III/IV, 1:
Man was originally formed after the image of God. His understanding was adorned with a true and saving knowledge of his Creator and of spiritual things; his heart and will were upright; all his affections pure; and the whole man was holy.
Long before the Reformation, Augustine had distinguished the three estates of man with three Latin expressions. The first of these expressions was posse non peccare, that is, the estate of man according to which he was “able not to sin.” God created man upright and good, capable of serving Him perfectly, that is, capable of not sinning. At the same time, God created him with the capacity to sin. Man could sin, and sin he did. Because God had eternally decreed that Adam would sin, and in harmony with His eternal decree, God made man capable of sinning. God made Adam capable of serving God His Creator, but He also made him capable of disobeying, rebelling, and sinning against the Lord God. In the language of the Second Helvetic Confession, God created man “so that he could both continue in goodness and decline to evil.”
According to his original creation, therefore, Adam had a free will. God made him with a free will. This was one of the excellent gifts that God bestowed on man. He made Adam capable of freely willing the will of God, but He also made him capable of willing contrary to the will of God. Immediately following the lines quoted above from the Canons of Dordt, the fathers of the Great Synod added:
But, revolting from God by the instigation of the devil and abusing the freedom of his own will, he forfeited these excellent gifts, and on the contrary entailed on himself blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, and perverseness of judgment, became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his affections [emphasis added].
By an act of his will, Adam “declined to evil, and has involved himself and the whole human race in sin and death.”
What Man Was After the Fall. Then we are to consider what man was after the fall. To be sure, his reason was not taken from him, nor was he deprived of will, and he was not entirely changed into a stone or a tree. But they were so altered and weakened that they no longer can do what they could before the fall. For the understanding is darkened, and the will which was free has become an enslaved will. Now it serves sin, not unwillingly but willingly. And indeed, it is called a will, not an unwill(ing).
The second state or condition of man is that which exists after the Fall. This is the estate of man designated by Augustine as non posse non peccare, that is, the state in which man is “not able not to sin.” Because of his fall, man is become a totally depraved sinner. As a totally depraved sinner, his will is thoroughly corrupt and bound in sin. He still wills: “indeed, it is called a will, not an unwill.” Man retains his will, the faculty of willing, choosing, and desiring. He remains a rational, moral creature after the Fall. But now, from a spiritual point of view, all that he wills is against God, contrary to the law of God, and in opposition to the revealed will of God.
After the Fall, man did not cease to be a man.
Bullinger says: “he was not entirely changed into a stone or a tree.” He remained a man, but a fallen man, whose powers are completely under the control of sin. Neither was it necessary for common grace to intervene, as Abraham Kuyper taught, lest Adam would degenerate into a beast or a demon. Man is man. Before the Fall he is a man, and after the Fall he remains a man. He retained all his faculties—all that made him a man. But now, he was a sinful man. He was “so altered and weakened” that he could “no longer do what [he] could do before the fall.” Regarding his will, “the will which was free has become an enslaved will. Now it serves sin, not unwillingly but willingly.” He retained a “will,” not an “unwill.” But his will was no longer free; it was bound. After the Fall, man continued to will, to desire, to want. But after the Fall he did and could only will that which was sinful.
Bullinger in the SHC is defending one of the central doctrines of the Reformation: the bondage of the will. This was the one great issue that separated Erasmus and Luther. Erasmus insisted on the freedom of the will of fallen man, that fallen man can at least desire to do that which is good, desire to please God, desire Christ and salvation. Over against Erasmus’ concession to the Roman Catholic Church, Luther and the other Reformers insisted on the fallenness of man’s will. Fallen man continued to will, but his will was opposed to God and to the things of God. Not only could he not save himself but fallen man could not even desire (will) that which was approved by God. Both Luther and Calvin wrote books in which they rejected the unbiblical doctrine of free will and in which they defended the bondage of the will as taught in Scripture.1 Well known is Luther’s “praise” of Erasmus for identifying free will as the great issue between himself and Luther.
In this, moreover, I give you great praise, and proclaim it—you alone in pre-eminent distinction from all others, have entered upon the thing itself; that is, the grand turning point of the cause; and, have not wearied me with those irrelevant points about popery, purgatory, indulgences, and other like baubles, rather than causes, with which all have hitherto tried to hunt me down— though in vain! You, and you alone saw, what was the grand hinge upon which the whole turned, and therefore you attacked the vital part at once; for which, from my heart, I thank you.2
Luther charged those who defended free will with denying Christ. So serious is the error of free will!
And I would also, that the advocates of “free-will” be admonished…that when they assert “free-will,” they are deniers of Christ. For if I obtain grace by my own endeavors, what need have I of the grace of Christ for the receiving of my grace?3
All the Reformers considered the denial of free will to be a crucial aspect of the gospel of the Reformation— the gospel as it was restored to the church through the Reformation. They denied free will in the interests of the grace of God in the salvation of unworthy and unable sinners. They saw that nearly all the evils of the Roman Catholic Church were built on a foundation laid on the quicksand of free will. Luther and Calvin, as well as the other Reformers, knew the truth of the bondage of the will personally and experientially. And to a man, they were convinced of this truth on the basis of Holy Scripture, as becomes plain a bit later in this ninth chapter of the SHC.
Man Does Evil by His Own Free Will. Therefore, in regard to evil or sin, man is not forced by God or by the devil but does evil by his own free will, and in this respect he has a most free will. But when we frequently see that the worst crimes and designs of men are prevented by God from reaching their purpose, this does not take away man’s freedom in doing evil, but God by his own power prevents what man freely planned otherwise. Thus Joseph’s brothers freely determined to get rid of him, but they were unable to do it because something else seemed good to the counsel of God.
This paragraph of the ninth chapter of the SHC is intended to safeguard the truth of the responsibility of man and the sovereignty of God. Although the will of fallen man is bound, so that he is a slave of sin, he is not coerced to sin against his will. As a fallen and totally depraved sinner he can only sin—will to sin and commit that which is sinful. But that does not take away from the responsibility of the sinner for his sin. Man always sins willingly, choses to sin, and desires that which is sinful: “man is not forced by God or by the devil but does evil by his own free will, and in this respect he has a most free will.”
It is precisely because he sins willingly that the sinner is always responsible for his sin. If he were compelled against his will to sin, he could not justly be held accountable for his sin. Then whoever compelled him to sin would bear the greater responsibility. On account of the fact that man always sins because he wants to sin, delights in sin, and freely choses sin, he is responsible before God for the sin that he commits. Strikingly, some of the very texts that underscore the sovereignty of God over sin also emphasize the responsibility of the sinner. Jesus says in Luke 22:22 that He goes to the cross “as it was determined” by God. Does that excuse Judas Iscariot for betraying Jesus? It does not: “but woe unto that man by whom he is betrayed.” That is also the instruction of the apostle Peter in Acts 2:23. In this text, the apostle proclaims to the multitude on the day of Pentecost that Jesus Christ was “delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God.” Nonetheless, those who delivered Him up to be crucified were fully responsible for His crucifixion: “ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.”
Although man sins freely (willingly), God is sovereign over sin. God is sovereign over sin because He has eternally decreed sin. Not only did God eternally decree the death of His Son, but He also decreed the way in which Christ would be brought to His cross: the treachery of sinful men. Thus, “the worst crimes and designs of men are prevented by God from reaching their purpose.” Beside decreeing sin, God is sovereign over sin so that His purpose is achieved with sin, rather than the purpose of sinful men. Sinful men intended the destruction of the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. They hoped that by murdering Him, they would be done with Him once and for all. Instead, those wicked men were used by God to accomplish the salvation of His church and the great glory of His Son, Jesus Christ.
Not only does God use sin and the sinner to accomplish His own purposes, “God by his own power prevents what man freely planned otherwise.” The SHC cites one of the outstanding biblical examples of God exercising His power to prevent what man by his sin had determined. That is taught in the example of the life of Joseph: “Thus Joseph’s brothers freely determined to get rid of him, but they were unable to do it because something else seemed good to the counsel of God.” What this comes down to is that God “makes whatever evils He sends upon me, in this valley of tears, turn out to my advantage,” as the Heidelberg Catechism teaches in Q&A 26. This was Joseph’s confession to his brothers: “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive” (Gen. 50:20).
The truth of this paragraph of the SHC rings true to human experience. The enemies of the sovereignty of God often allege that if God is sovereign over sin, He is the author of sin—a reprehensible accusation. Although this is a theological objection to the truth of God’s sovereignty, it is not a practical objection. Every man knows—we know—that when we sin, we are guilty before God for the sin we have committed. Although God is sovereign, we remain responsible for the sins that we commit. “[I]n this respect [man] has a most free will,” that is, he does evil of his own accord and because he desires to do evil. Thus, God’s sovereignty does not rule out man’s responsibility.
1 Luther’s book was a direct response to Erasmus’ book on the freedom of the will and was entitled The Bondage of the Will. Calvin’s book was entitled The Bondage and Liberation of the Will.
2 The Bondage of the Will, trans. Henry Cole (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), 391.
3 The Bondage of the Will, 371.