There are perennial debates among good Christians. How old is the earth? When do you date the exodus? Sloppy wet, or unforeseen?
And of course, what is the nature of free will in man? How do we reconcile passages that talk about the plan and foreknowledge of God with passages equally inspired that tell us to choose God and live? How does the church understand the relationship between the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man, both for our redemption and daily living? The Confession helps us by pulling together a host of passages and categorizing them for us.
The Confession starts with a general truth about man’s responsibility. “God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty and power of acting upon choice, that it is neither forced, nor by any necessity of nature determined to do good or evil.” There are choices we make every day, many of which are moral choices. Do I break the speed limit or not? Do I give my best effort at work? Do I show my spouse the affection she deserves? Will I discipline my child with his redemption in mind?
There are wicked, evil, unrepentant people who work hard and pay their employees well. People who would otherwise say they reject biblical truth have never hit their children or their spouse. The biblical worldview says that every person is capable of both great good and great evil.
In Deuteronomy 30:19, Moses calls on the Israelites to choose life over death through obedience to the law of God. And there were instances when Israel did just that. But for every time they repented and turned to God, choosing life, there were a dozen instances where they turned to idolatry and hated God. God has set a choice before us.
But that is not the whole story. The Confession goes on to say that “Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom and power to will and to do that which was good and well-pleasing to God, but yet was unstable, so that he might fall from it.”
For God to call things very good, they had to have been sinless. There was a point in time when the first humans were truly innocent, sinless, and perfect. Solomon reminds us that “God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29). By saying that we were unstable, the Confession is simply saying that we were able to choose life or death. The command not to eat of the tree was the mechanism by which Adam would choose life or death. Not eating from the tree would be the path to life; indulging would lead to death.
And of course, eventually man would choose death. “Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able by his own strength to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.”
There was some moral ability that was lost in the fall. As Paul says in Romans 8:7, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot.” The man who is still in the flesh is necessarily not in the Spirit and therefore does not submit to God’s law. He is incapable to turn to what he hates. Not only does the Scripture say that we cannot submit to God, that we are hostile to him, but we are “dead in the trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). In the fall, we lost our ability to find joy and satisfaction in knowing God. That is spiritual death.
But because God is rich in mercy (Ephesians 2:4), that is not the end. “When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, he freeth him from his natural bondage under sin, and by his grace alone enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet so as that by reason of his remaining corruptions, he doth not perfectly, nor only will, that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil.”
Paul tells us that God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins” (Colossians 1:13-14). In the fall, we became captive to sin and lost the fullness of our willingness to love God. But in the state of grace, he positions Christ as our new covenant head and forgives us of our sins. And “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).
It is God at work in us to make us holy, enabling us to do spiritual good. “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). This does not mean perfection this side of the grave. Even the most devout believer is burdened with sin, even in the state of grace. If Paul can say, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15), then I am no better off. Lest we think that Paul is speaking of a non-believer in this passage, keep reading. “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Romans 7:22-23). No unregenerate man can say that he delights in God’s law.
But there will be a time when all sin, as well as any desire to sin, is totally in the past. The Confession says, “This will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to good alone in the state of glory only.” What are we looking forward to, if not unfettered peace with God through Christ in the Spirit because sin is no more! Speaking of the role of pastor-teacher in the church, Paul says that we must work “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). He is speaking of a future state, one unencumbered with the cares of this world. Only then will we attain perfect unity, perfect knowledge, and perfect humanity, because of the perfect Christ.
Related to free will is the doctrine of calling, to which we will turn our attention next week.