Free Will and Free Agency
Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom and power to will and to do that which is good and well pleasing to God; but that state was mutable, or changeable, so that he was able to fall from it.
Man, by his fall into a state of sin, has entirely lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; therefore, as a natural man, being altogether averse to that good, and dead in sin, he is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself or to prepare himself for salvation.
When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, He frees 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, by reason of his remaining corruption, he also wills that which is evil.
The will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to do good alone in the state of glory only. Any study of the will of man is incomplete without some explanation of the difference between free will and free agency. I am using free as meaning “independent, sovereign, autonomous,” that is, “not subject to the rule or control of another.”
An agent is “one who acts, performs an act, or has power to act—a moving force.”
Man is a free moral agent, but he does not have a free will. Man is only free to act according to his nature, and he was born with a sinful nature (see Ps. 5 1:5).
One does not pursue the study of free will and free agency very far until he comes head on with an apparent contradiction (note well, I said “apparent”). We must, in all candor, acknowledge these apparent contradictions. They deserve some serious, thoughtful consideration. For example, we must address God’s commands and man’s inability—God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.
God’s Commands and Man’s Inability
The gospel command—”Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved”—is addressed by divine authority to every creature, and therefore it is the duty of every man to obey it. There are some who deny this upon the grounds that man does not have the spiritual ability to believe in Jesus. However, it is altogether an error to imagine that the measure of the sinner’s moral ability is the measure of his duty.
There are many things which men ought to do which they have now lost the moral and spiritual (though not the physical) power to do. A man ought to be chaste; but if he has been so long immoral that he cannot restrain his passions, he is not therefore free from the obligation. It is the duty of a debtor to pay his debts; but if he has been such a spendthrift that he has brought himself into hopeless poverty, he is not exonerated from his debts on account of his inability to pay.
Every man ought to believe that which is true, but if his mind has become so depraved that he loves a lie and will not receive the truth, is he therefore excused?
If the law of God is to be lowered according to the moral condition of sinners, we would have a law graduated upon a sliding scale to suit the degrees of human sinfulness. In fact, the worst man would then be under the least law and become consequently the least guilty. God’s requirements would be of a variable quantity, and, in truth, we would be under no rule at all.
The command of Christ stands good, however bad men may be; and when lie commands all men everywhere to repent, they are required to repent, whether their sinfulness renders it impossible for them to he willing to do so or not. In every case, it is man’s duty to do what God bids him.
But, one may ask, how can a person be a free and responsible agent if his actions have been foreordained from eternity? Again, a free and responsible agent means an intelligent person who acts with rational self-determination. Foreordination means that from eternity past God has made certain the actual course of events which take place in the life of every person and in the realm of nature.
It is important to note at the outset that the true solution of this difficult question respecting the sovereignty of God and the freedom of man is not to be found in denying the sovereignty of God; neither is it found in denying the responsibility of man. The same God who has ordained the events has ordained human liberty and human responsibility in the midst of these events. The Bible teaches that it is just as important to assert the true validity of the secondary agent (man) as it is to assert the ultimate validity of the final cause (God).
One can readily see that we have as our solution either fatalism on the one hand, or the intelligent plan and purpose of an almighty, personal God on the other. The Bible clearly teaches that God has a plan and that He has the wisdom and power to execute that plan.
Pelagianism denies human depravity, the necessity of efficacious grace, and exalts the human will above the divine will. Pelagians do not believe in the imputation of Adam’s sin. By denying man’s sinfulness, Pelagianism lifts up man’s will and opens the door for the Arminian belief that man freely, on his own, chooses God. Therefore, Pelagianism is the mother of Arminianism; in fact, “Arminianism” can be traced back to a time twelve hundred years before Arminius was born.
A quote from Robert Shaw’s Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith will put the Arminian and the Calvinistic views of free will in perspective:
The decision of most of the points in controversy between Calvinists and Arminians, as President Edwards has observed, depends on the determination of the question—Wherein consists that freedom of will which is requisite to moral agency? According to Arminians three things belong to the freedom of the will:—1. That the will has a self-determining power, or a certain sovereignty over itself, and its own acts, whereby it determines its own volitions. 2. A state of indifference, or that equilibrium, whereby the will is without all antecedent bias, and left entirely free from any prepossessing inclination to one side or the other. 3. That the volitions, or acts of the will, are contingent, not only as opposed to all constraint, but to all necessity, or any fixed and certain connection with some previous ground or reason of their existence. Calvinists, on the other hand, contend that a power in the will to determine its own determinations, is either unmeaning, or supposes, contrary to the first principles of philosophy, something to arise without a cause; that the idea of the soul exerting an act of choice of preference, while, at the same time, the will is in a perfect equilibrium, or state of indifference, is full of absurdity and self-contradiction; and that, as nothing can ever come to pass without a cause, the acts of the will are never contingent, or without necessity—understanding by necessity, a necessity of consequence, or an infallible connection with something foregoing. According to Calvinists, the liberty of a moral agent consists in the power of acting according to his choice; and those actions are free which are performed without any external compulsion or restraint, in consequence of the determination of his own mind. “The necessity of man’s willing and acting in conformity to his apprehensions and disposition, is, in their opinion, fully consistent with all the liberty which can belong to a rational nature. The infinite Being necessarily wills and acts according to the absolute perfection of his nature, yet with the highest liberty. Angels necessarily will and act according to the perfection of their natures, yet with full liberty; for this sort of necessity is so far from interfering with liberty of will, that the perfection of the will’s liberty lies in such a necessity. The very essence of its liberty lies in acting consciously, choosing or refusing without any external compulsion or constraint, but according to inward principles of rational apprehension and natural disposition.”
Thus the Arminian and the Calvinist differ on their qualifying conditions of what makes up a free will. The Calvinist believes the man is free to choose and act in accordance with his nature. The Arminian, with his Pelagian roots denying moral depravity, believes that the will can make choices which are completely untainted by his nature and thus has a “free will.” In contrast, the Calvinist believes man is a free agent—free to act according to his own nature.
Free agency is not to be confused with “free will.” Because of the fall, men have lost their ability—the will—to obey God, but they are just as responsible to God to obey perfectly His commands. Thus Spurgeon could say, “I dread more than anything your being left to your own free will.” Arminianism, alongside hyper-Calvinisrn, argues that sinners cannot be required to do what they are not able to do, namely, to believe in Christ for salvation, since the ability to believe belongs only to the elect and is only given at a time determined by the Spirit of God. They say, “For a preacher to call all his hearers to immediate repentance and faith is to deny both human depravity and sovereign grace.” So they say.
Spurgeon says this on the implications of free will:
According to the free will scheme, the Lord intends good, but he must wait like a lackey on his own creature to know what his intention is; God willeth good and would do it but he cannot because he has an unwilling man who will not have God’s good thing carried into effect. What do ye, sirs, but drag the Eternal from his throne and lift up into it that fallen creature, man; for man, according to that theory, nods and his nod is destiny. You must have a destiny somewhere; it must either be as God wills or as man wills. If it be as God wills, then Jehovah sits as sovereign upon his throne of glory, and all hosts obey him, and the world is safe; if not God, then you put man there to say, “I will,” or “I will not; if I will it, I will enter heaven; if I will it, I will despise the grace of God; if I will it, I will conquer the Holy Spirit, for I am stronger than God and stronger than omnipotence; if I will it, I will make the blood of Christ of no effect, for I am mightier than the blood, mightier than the blood of the Son of God himself; though God make his purpose, yet will I laugh at his purpose; it shall be my purpose that shall make his purpose stand or fall.” Why, sirs, if this be not atheism, it is idolatry; it is putting man where God should be; and I shrink with solemn awe and horror from that doctrine which makes the grandest of God’s works—the salvation of man—to be dependent upon the will of his creature whether it shall be accomplished or not. Glory I can and must in my text in its fullest sense. “It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy” (Romans 9:16).
Our Lord’s mission was not to save all whom He addressed; it was to save out of them as many as His Father gave Him: “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me” (John 6:37).
O unconverted man, your will is no place on which to fix your hope—the will cannot set itself free. Only God can set the prisoner free.