Pastor John, here’s a big question we get frequently from listeners, and it comes in various forms, but essentially the question is this: Is there such a thing as free will?
Let me pose the question really specifically so that it is not quite that broad, but I think it will go right to the heart of the matter: Do we have free will in choosing Christ as our Lord and Savior and treasure? I think that is what the center of the debate is about. And then people can generalize beyond that: Do you have free will to eat a banana? But I am just talking about, do we have free will to choose Christ as our Savior, our Lord, our treasure? And, of course, that depends on the definition of free will.
Let’s start with one definition that those in the debate would agree with. I know that in my debates with Greg Boyd, for example, he would use this for what he is defending: You have a free will when you have ultimate self-determination.
With this definition, you have free will in choosing Christ if the ultimate cause of the choice is your own self-determination. So, the point is the word ultimate here. There may be a lot of factors that share in determining your choice of Christ. But only one of those factors is ultimate or final. Free will on this demands that you be that factor, not anything else, including God. God is not the final, ultimate factor in the choice. You are.
Here is another way to say it: You have free will when your will is the decisive cause of your choosing Christ. And the word decisive has the same function as ultimate. There may be many causes that influence your choosing Christ. But for you to be free, in this definition, the decisive cause — the one that finally decides your choice — must be your will, not anyone else’s will, including God’s.
“Believing in Christ is a gift. It is granted to you because you can’t produce it on your own.”
So that is what the debate is about. When you get to heaven, if God asks you, “What is the deepest, decisive reason you believed on my Son?” What will your answer be? Will you say, “The decisive reason for my choice was your grace?” Or will you say, “The deceive reason for my choice was me?”
Now be sure to notice that the question is not, did we make a choice? The question was not, was our will active and necessary? The question was not, was our choice real? The answer to all those questions is yes. You made a choice. Your will was active and necessary. Your choice was real. That is not the question in the debate.
The question is, when your will chose, what was decisive in bringing that willing about? What was the decisive influence or the decisive cause? And the Bible answers: God’s grace. And others say: your own power of self-determination. So, I am arguing here that in choosing Christ we don’t have that kind of free will — that is, the power of self-determination. And here are three kinds of texts that I would commend for people to think about.
1. Blind and Corrupt
First, we are so morally corrupt that we can’t do good. We can’t believe. “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 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” (Romans 8:6–7).
The mind of the flesh, apart from Jesus Christ, cannot submit to God. We love our self-exaltation and cannot submit. Or consider 1 Corinthians 2:14: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able” — he is not able! — to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” So, these texts in the Bible says we cannot perceive and submit to God because we are so corrupt.
2. God’s Gift of Faith
Second, we can’t choose Christ. It is, finally, a gift of God: “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance” (2 Timothy 2:24–25). So repentance is required, and we can’t do it on our own. The decisive cause is, God may grant repentance.
Or look at Philippians 1:29: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” Believing in Christ is a gift. It is granted to you because you can’t produce it on your own. So Paul says, “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16).
3. God’s Decisive Work
Third, what is this experience like, then, when we choose by another’s power? In 1 Corinthians 15:10, Paul says, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” So there is a picture: I do choose, I do work. I am laboring. But, no, it is God at work in me. He is the decisive, underneath cause bringing it about. Same thing in Philippians 2:12: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Your willing is caused by his willing and your working is caused by his working.
“The sovereign grace of God breaks in on our lives and makes us able to see Christ as beautiful so that we freely choose Christ.”
Here is my conclusion. If we are left to our free will — that is, to our power of ultimate self-determination, we will all of us use it to reject Christ. We are so spiritually dead and numb and blind and rebellious against Christ — we love the darkness so much — that we don’t have the moral ability to see and prize and choose Christ over this world.
The sovereign grace of God breaks in on our lives, overcomes our rebellion, overcomes our blindness and our deadness, and makes us able to see Christ as compelling and beautiful so that we freely choose Christ. Of course, I know this leaves unanswered the question, well then, how in the world are we accountable or responsible? But in this episode I just wanted to say, no, we don’t have free will in choosing Christ if you define free will as ultimate self-determination.