The argument often goes a little something like this: “Calvinists can’t believe in free-will because humans are just robots.” But is this a proper understanding of free will? In this article I intend to highlight and explain three points: 1) the freedom of the will pre-fall 2) the freedom of the will post-fall and 3) the logical conclusion of the Reformed understanding (in contrast to that of the Arminian/Traditional understanding)
The Freedom of the Will Pre-fall
Man was created in the image of God. Genesis 1:27 says “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” among the other implications of being made in the image of God, mankind was made with a will that was “good and well-pleasing to God, but yet unstable, so that he might fall from it.” (LBCF 9.2) This will is the primary thing that distinguishes humanity from animals and the rest of creation. By this will Adam and Eve were able to be obedient to their Creator, and ultimately they could have obtained an eternal, perfect standing by their obedience. But you will notice the last phrase of the above quoted portion of the London Baptist Confession, “but yet unstable, so that he might fall from it.” Adam and Eve had the complete, unhindered ability to obey God and all of His commands, but consequently they also had the ability to disobey God– and that is exactly what they did.
For the sake of argumentation, I would like to point out one thing: if Adam and Eve were not created with a will that was “unstable” then they would in that case be nothing more than robots. But God, in His perfect knowledge, created man with a will that was initially pure and appeasing to Him yet was free to rebel against what He had commanded.
Exercising their free will they blatantly disregarded God’s command to not eat of the tree of Good and Evil (Genesis 3:6). Doing so they plunged themselves and all of future humanity into a state of spiritual deadness. They made the most costly mistake that any human could ever make: they rejected God in favor of sin. Immediately after they sinned, Adam and Eve experienced the punishment for their wrong-doing. “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” (Genesis 3:7) As soon as they ate of the fruit their eyes were opened, they knew they were naked and God banished them from the garden. Even amid the fall of mankind there was mercy.
The Freedom of the Will Post-fall
I noted earlier that when Adam and Eve sinned, they plunged all of humanity into a state of spiritual deadness. This is why Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:1 “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins.” At this point we must clarify what is meant by the term “free will”. I have no doubt that every evangelical Christian will agree that Adam and Eve were created with a free will, the debate arises when we talk about the state of their will after the fall.
So what do I (and other Reformed believers) mean when we speak of having (or not having) a free will? The London Baptist Confession, the Westminster Confession, Savoy Declaration, and the Philadelphia Confession all state the same thing concerning the state of man’s will. It goes as follows: “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” (9.3). At this point let’s clear something up. Reformed theology does not teach that after the fall mankind was stripped void of their free will. Rather the proper understanding is stated clearly in the Second Helvetic Confession of Faith,
“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). [Etenim voluntas, non noluntas dicitur.]”
So after the fall man was enslaved to sin. Mankind still has a will, an altered and weakened will. This is evidenced by the fact that even unregenerate people still do good deeds. What sinful man can’t do is save himself. That is the heart of the argument. Free-will Baptists and other Arminian/Arminian-leaning groups embrace (whether explicitly or implicitly) a line of thought that says that man contributes at least something to his salvation. This is known as synergism. The counter-point is known as monergism. Monergism is the line of thought that says that God is the sole contributor to the salvation of mankind. This is the logical conclusion of Ephesians 2:1. As cliché as it is, dead men can not choose.
The Logical Conclusion of the Reformed Understanding (in contrast to that of the Arminian/Traditional understanding)
This may seem like a dark, sad and gloomy concept but seen in the proper light and context, it is actually a very glorious thing. Calvinism is most basically summed up in the acrostic T.U.L.I.P. Because of the fall of Adam, sin’s effect extends to the last particle of man. We are totally depraved.
Due to us being totally depraved and unable to save ourselves God must do the saving. God does this by electing, unconditionally, certain individuals. We see this most clearly in Romans 9:11-12 when Paul recounts the Old Testament story of the birth of Jacob and Esau in order to illustrate the doctrine of divine election. Paul says that this election done before either were born and wasn’t based on their works. This then contradicts the false notion that God looked out into the future to see whether or not certain individuals would choose Christ and then God bases His election on that decision. Because we are totally depraved the election of persons must be unconditional, otherwise salvation would be works-based.
If we are totally depraved, it follows that election must be unconditional. With election being unconditional it then follows that the atonement must be limited. There is a substantial amount of people who claim the title “Calvinist” who hold to what is sometimes known as Amyraldism, or four-point Calvinism (for more on this view you can read this article). If Christ died for all men, but not all men are saved, then did Christ fail? What about if Christ’s death made everyone “savable” (like Amyraldism argues) but still not everyone is saved, did Christ fail? Universalism does not satisfy the Biblical testament because we all know of people who rejected Christ until their last fleeting breath. Amyraldism also doesn’t satisfy because it poses a hypothetical redemption that, given God’s character as revealed in Scripture, is a logical fallacy. It is illogical to think that the God who meticulously and sovereignly orchestrated every single detail of time would suddenly become lax when it comes to salvation. However, the Reformed doctrine of Limited Atonement not only flows flawlessly with the other four points of TULIP, but more importantly it is consistent with the Biblical testament.
It is here that I would like to interject that the term “limited atonement” is not the most helpful term. I believe that most people who disagree with this point of the TULIP do so not because they disagree with what is actually meant, but that they don’t fully understand what is meant because the term is a bit vague. I personally prefer the term definite atonement (others would prefer particular atonement) . Please don’t misunderstand me, “limited” is a very valid and useful term and the atonement is limited in its effect and scope– to the elect. Both Matthew 1:21 and John 10:15 convey the idea that Christ died for a particular people. In Isaiah 53 the prophet speaks of “God’s people” and bearing the sins of “many”. Perhaps the biggest problem that any view of the atonement, aside from Limited Atonement, must address is found in 2 Corinthians 5:21. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Would Christ become sin for people who would never profess His name? I think not! Therefore, the atonement must be limited.
If we are totally depraved and election is unconditional, the atonement is limited then God’s grace must be irresistible. At this point some people contend that Calvinism at this point presents a God who forces humans into salvation. This, however, is not the case. Because of our spiritual deadness we need God to soften our hearts– and that is exactly what Irresistible Grace is. If you remember Saul’s conversion story, you’ll remember just how hard his heart was. He was undeniably opposed to the God of Christianity. But something spectacular happened to him. On his way to Damascus God showed up. After that brief encounter, Saul left a changed man. When a sinner encounters God the only option is change. The Spirit draws those whom the Father has called and who Jesus died for. This is plain Biblical teaching. In John 1:13 we are taught that rebirth is not by “the will of the flesh” with the point being that regeneration is only done by the working of the Spirit.
The key to all of this is recognizing our state and our need for salvation. The purpose of this post is to defend a Biblical understanding of free will, and this point is where this excurses on TULIP comes to a climax. If the understanding that sinful men can “choose” Christ is true, then the opposite is true– a regenerate man could become “unregenerate”. Doesn’t this fly directly in the face of passages that speak of security? Let us now turn our thoughts towards the last letter of the acronym.
As we have seen, the first four points of Calvinism are each links in a chain that logically fit together in order. The last point is Perseverance of the Saints. Perhaps the most explicit text in defense of this doctrine is John 10:28 (for a great expositional sermon on this text, listen to this sermon by my pastor). Believers are secure in the hands of the Father. Nothing, not famine, not tribulation, or distress, nothing at all can separate us from Christ! Because believers are elected in Christ, and Christ purchased the salvation of the elect, the elect are secure! If it were left up to sinful men, not only would men choose to forsake God for the sinful desires of their hearts, they would live their lives daily in rejection of God. We need God to hold us tightly in His hands.
As we have seen, man was created in the image of God which included a will completely free, yet mutable. As a result of this freedom man chose sin over obedience. This choice cursed all of creation and damned every future human soul. It is completely by grace that any human is pulled from the fiery pits of hell and shown mercy! If it were not solely of grace, every human would be destined for hell. Calvinism, in my estimation, presents a robust and thoroughly biblical lens by which to properly understand the doctrine of free will. Free will is intrinsically tied to soteriology, and as such the way you understand one will determine the other. No matter where you fall on the soteriology/free will spectrum, whether you are an Arminian, Calvinist, Molinist or some other -ist, the words of my pastor are profoundly useful: “It is ok to let the tension of Scripture stand.”- Dan Smetana
At the end of the day every believer can give a hearty “amen” to the Psalmist when he says “Salvation belongs to the Lord” (Psalms 3:8).