Do human beings have free-will?

Question
Do human beings have free-will?
Answer

Thanks for your question. It depends on what you mean by "free-will." If you mean a person who can make choices that affect their lives within the limitations of their fallen natures, then yes they have "free-will." Some call this "free-agency" to help avoid confusion. However, if you mean that a person can freely do whatever they desire at any time or place by any means, then no a person does not have "free-will."

An illustration may be helpful. Most people can cross a street by merely walking across it. However, not everyone has this ability. I use to be a Homicide Detective. In all my years of service, I never saw a corpse get up and cross a street. Dead people have some serious limitations!

Even God has some divine self-ordained limitations, as there are many things he can't do. God can't deny his nature! God can't sin, he can't lie, he can't make a rock so heavy that he can't lift it, etc. See Things God Can't Do? God too is bound by his nature, which is completely holy, just, and good (Rom 7:12).

When it comes to salvation all of us have limitations. We call these limitations "total depravity" or "total inability." All of us, except Christ, have a sin nature. We are depraved. It's not a pretty word, but it properly describes our condition. Our depravity is due to the Fall and our own personal sin. We inherited Adam's corruption (Rom 5:12-21) and have our own as well (Rom 3:23). You may not think that is fair that we inherit Adam's sin, but we must remember he was perfect (Gen 1:31). We would have done much worse. We are naturally sinful evil beings (Eccl 9:3; Jer 17:9; Matt 15:19). We are slaves to sin (John 8:34; Rom 6:6, 16-17, 19-20; 7:14; Gal 4:8-9; 2 Tim 2:25-26; Tit 3:3; 2 Pet 2:19). We are "dead in trespasses and sin" (Eph 2:1-3). This is all very limiting (Jer 13:23).

Being spiritually "dead" (Eph 2:1-3) is a huge limitation - like the dead person above who couldn't cross the street. But, it gets even worse. Besides being dead, we are spiritually blind (Matt 15:14; 2 Pet 1:9) and cannot truly see God's will. We are deaf (Matt 13:15; 2 Tim 4:4) and cannot hear his Word or Spirit. Like mere idols we are mute (Psa 115:4-6; 1 Cor 12:2) and can't confess Christ, and even if we could we wouldn't and couldn't do it from a true pure heart (Rom 8:7-8). We have withered hands (Mark 3:1) and cannot accept the gifts of God - including faith and repentance (Eph 2:8; 2 Tim 2:24-25). We are lame (Acts 3:2) and cannot walk in the ways of the Lord. Like lepers (Luke 17:12) we are total outcasts.

In this horrible condition, we cannot choose to make ourselves righteous (Jer 13:23; 17:9; cf. Prov 27:22; Isa 1:5; Jer 2:22; 4:22). We don't even desire too (Rom 8:7-8). We might try to do some good things from time to time, but that is not the same as true righteousness, as without Christ all our works are tainted with sin (Isa 64:6). We may attempt to cover our sins like Adam and Eve did in the Garden, but mere fig leaves (Gen 3:7) will not undo what each of us has done (Rom 3:23). God will only accept a blood sacrifice; and it isn't yours, but his (Gen 3:21; John 1:29; 1 Pet 1:18-20; Isa 53:1-12).

However, our depraved limitation does not mitigate our total accountability. We are still responsible for all our sins; whether they be sins of omission or sins of commission. We are still commanded to choose life that we may live (Deut 30:19). As sinners we are commanded repeatedly to repent and believe (Matt 3:2; 4:17; Acts 3:19; 1 John 3:23). And every call to repent and believe is a call to choose and yet our depraved nature remains resistant to the things of God (John 1:11; 3:19; 5:40; Acts 7:51). Dead men don't/can't obey (Rom 8:7-8; Eph 2:1-3).

Things look really bleak at this point don't they? Is there anything that can be done? Who can heal the blind, the deaf, the mute, those with withered hands, the lame, the lepers, and raise the dead? Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!

Matthew 11:5 the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.

Matthew 15:30 And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them.

Only Jesus can heal the heart. Isaiah speaking of Jesus said, "The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, Because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners" (Isa 61:1; Luke 4:18). Yes Jesus! He alone is the author of salvation (Heb 12:2). He chooses on whom he bestows faith, mercy, and grace, and he doesn't choose everyone. Tyre, Sidon, (Matt 11:21) and Sodom (Matt 11:23-24) would have repented if God had worked certain miracles there. But he didn't. Jesus said, "Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes . . . And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day" (Matt 11:20-24). "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb 10:31).

Christ did not die for all, but for "many" (Isa 53:12; Matt 20:28; Heb 9:28). He gave himself for a particular people (Eph 1:4-5, 11; Tit 2:14). Who are these particular people? All whom the Father has "given" Jesus (John 6:37). Who are those that are given to Jesus? All those that are effectually "called" by God (John 6:44, 65). Who then hears this call of God? All of those born of the Spirit of God (John 3:1-8). Those born of the Spirit of God are no longer blind and can "see the Kingdom of God" (John 3:3). They are no longer lame and can "enter the Kingdom of God" (John 3:5). As Jesus says, "You must be born again" (John 3:7).

It is the Holy Spirit who regenerates those effectually called of God so they may be justified. Salvation is mongeristic - God's work alone (John 1:12-13; Rom 9:14-16). God first changes us, so that we can willingly know him as Lord and Savior (Rom 10:9-10).

Thus, the order of salvation. Ordo salutis is Latin for "the order of salvation," which deals with the logical sequence of stages involved in the salvation of a believer: (1) election, (2) effectual calling, (3) regeneration, (4) faith, (5) repentance, (6) justification, (7) adoption, (8) sanctification, (9) perseverance, and (10) glorification (see Rom 8:29-30). Some of the benefits are applied at the same time and cannot be separated, and yet one is the logical cause of the other. John Frame in an article entitled, "Salvation and Theological Pedagogy," states:

Of the various descriptions of salvation in Reformed theology, ordo salutis, order of salvation, is the earliest. The purpose of the ordo is to list the events in the life of every saved person that join him to Christ. Typically, the list of events looks like this: [election], effectual calling, regeneration, faith, repentance, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, glorification. In effectual calling, God summons the elect person out of sin and into union with Christ. This gives him a new spiritual birth, a new heart, or regeneration. That regenerate heart enables the redeemed person to believe or trust in Christ (faith) and to repent of sin. Repentance is the opposite side of the coin from faith. Faith is turning to Christ, repentance turning away from sin, and you cannot do the one without doing the other. Justification, God's imputation to us of Christ's righteousness, is by faith, so it follows faith and repentance in the ordo. Those whom God justifies, he adopts into his family. Then there is sanctification, which means both that we are separated from the sphere of the world into the sphere of God's kingdom ("definitive sanctification"), and also that we become progressively more and more holy by the work of the Spirit within us ("progressive sanctification"). This new life within enables us to persevere in faith and love, until the consummation of all things when our glorification is complete. (italics added for emphasis)

As one can see in the text above our wills are given new ability to believe and repent, only after election, effectual calling, and regeneration. Our previous limitations to salvation are only lifted when we are born again. However, God continues to work in us after regeneration in justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, and at the consummation of all things, glorification. So, salvation involves an ongoing relationship as well as being an act of God upon us! I like to say it this way, we are saved (justified), are being saved (sanctification), and will be saved (glorification).

So, we have "free-agency" and are limited by our natures and not "free-will" - at least not the "free-will" that believes that we can do anything at anytime by any means.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).