Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan.
To understand salvation by grace alone one needs to understand what God does to the will of man when He saves him. Martin Luther came to see the central importance of this subject in his debate with Desiderius Erasmus. In fact, he was thankful that God had made use of Erasmus to bring the central importance of this truth to his attention. He spoke of this in the conclusion of his work entitled The Bondage of the Will:
Moreover, I give you hearty praise and commendation on this further account—that you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue. You have not wearied me with those extraneous issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like—trifles, rather than real issues—in respect of which almost all to date have sought my blood (though without success); you, and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot. For that I heartily thank you; for it is more gratifying to me to deal with this issue, insofar as time and leisure permit me to do so.
“The vital spot” Luther calls the truth concerning what man’s will is like by nature, and what God does to man’s will when He saves him.
It is common for us to speak, with Luther, of man by nature having a will that is in bondage to sin. Our creeds go on to say that this means that the will of the natural man is dead, and that God quickens it when He saves us, and thus enables and causes us willingly to do good works (Canons of Dordt, Heads III/IV, Article 11).
This central truth is denied today by many who claim to hold to the Three Forms of Unity. Understanding this truth not only helps us to refute those who deny it, but also causes us to stand more amazed at the wondrous work God performs within us.
The Dead Will of the Natural Man
Many who say they are Reformed hold to the error that the natural man still maintains the image of God. When they teach this they often make a distinction between the image of God in a broader and in a narrower sense. The distinction can be illustrated as follows:
Narrower sense = True knowledge of God, righteousness, and holiness
Broader sense = Man’s mind and will
The image is said to be like a two-story building. The second story refers to the image of God in the narrower sense, and consists of a true knowledge of God, righteousness, and holiness. This, it is sometimes admitted, was lost when man fell it sin. But the first story, which refers to the image of God in the broader sense and consists of man’s mind and will, was retained by man after he fell. Thus it is said that fallen man, in this broader and more basic sense, still maintains the image of God.
It is worth mentioning, just in passing, that there are a number of things wrong with this view of the image of God. First, nowhere in Scripture is man’s mind and will said to constitute the image of God in man. If it did constitute the image of God, then the devil also would have to be said to bear the image of our heavenly Father. Secondly, to bear the image of God is to be a child of God. A child bears the image of his parents. Adam is said to have begotten a son “in his own likeness, after his image” (Gen. 5:3). So if every man bears the image of God, then every man must be a child of God—something which Scripture clearly says is not the case.
But let us leave the subject of the image of God in man, to consider the fact that the natural man does indeed still have a will. Although he has a will, that will is not good, but evil. It is not living, but dead. The will of man belongs to the very nature of man, so that when man fell into sin and died, his will died.
One who has such a dead will cannot be persuaded to believe the Word of God. It is not even possible for him to desire the salvation set forth in the preaching of the gospel. His will is dead. It is separated from God, the source of life, and will always choose the ways of death. He is completely unable and unwilling to choose life.
The Quickening of This Will
According to the Canons of Dordt, when God saves us He quickens our dead will. When He saves one of His elect people, He
pervades the inmost recesses of the man; He opens the closed and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised, 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 of Dordt, Heads III/IV, Article 11).
Interestingly, our fathers at Dordrecht proved that salvation involves the quickening of the will of man by referring to passages such as Jeremiah 31:33 and Romans 5:5, which speak of God putting His law and His love, not into our wills, but into our hearts (Canons, III/IV, B, 6). But our fathers concluded that when God quickens our heart, placing His law and His love within it, He quickens our will, causing it to become good and obedient.
Luther was right when he said that the issue concerning the will of the natural man is a central issue. Although there are many varieties of false gospels, one of the teachings that is found in virtually all of them is that the natural man must fulfill some condition to be saved. Whether they say that man must do good works, simply believe, or perform the act of “accepting Christ,” they always teach that man has to do his part in the work of salvation. But for a man to fulfill some condition, even the act of seeking the grace of salvation, he must have a will that is living. And that the natural man does not have.
The Free Ones: Those Whose Will Is Alive
But the fact that our wills have been quickened means that in the new man we delight to do what is pleasing to our heavenly Father. Although we know well that in our old man we still desire only to sin, in the new man we delight to do what is pleasing to our God. In fact, in the new man with a new, quickened will, we are not able to sin. Our old man is dead, and can only sin. But our new man has been begotten by God, and thus is perfect. In the new man we cannot sin, because we have been born of God. This is explicitly the teaching of I John 3:9, which says,
Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.
In the new man, being born of God with a new, living will, we are not able to sin. It is true that in this life we are not able to do even one work that is completely free from sin. But that is because in our old man we only sin, and this sin defiles even our best works.
But as those whose wills have been quickened, and who have thus been liberated from the bondage of sin, we are able to begin to keep all of God’s commandments. This is what it means to be born of God—to have a will that is in harmony with the will of God. As those who bear the image of our Father in heaven, we are free to pursue the riches of the knowledge of God, free to speak and think well of our brothers and sisters in Christ, free to be faithful to the spouse God has given us, free to use all our gifts in the service of God and for the well-being of His people. This is the joy, the freedom, that we have as children of God.