Introduction & Thesis Statement
Humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). As such, humans are volitional beings, but that volition (or will) has been affected by the entrance of sin into creation (Genesis 3:6). I shall attempt to demonstrate that the will of fallen and unregenerate humanity has been radically corrupted by sin, it is in bondage to sin, and it is thereby morally unable to choose genuine good. I will begin by explaining two major perspectives on this matter, both as they are articulated now and as they have been represented in the past. I will then present a biblical case for my own view, and I will also attempt to answer some anticipated objections to it.
“Will” is often the word used to speak of that which governs the choices of humanity, and in this sense will and volition may be similar (if not interchangeable) terms. Human will, then, encompasses desire, preference, and disposition. That each human has a will is universally affirmed by all Christians, but there is much debate over the freedom or bondage of that will. Before the fall of mankind into sin, the will of man may be described as both free to sin (i.e. disobey God) and free to not sin (i.e. perfectly obey God). However, the question here is concerning the will of man after the fall of sin. In man’s post-fall condition, is his will free or fettered? Is man now capable of both wilful obedience and wilful disobedience, or is his will bound in some way to only one or the other?
Throughout Christian history theologians have generally given one answer or another to the question posed at the outset here. The great concerns motivating the liveliness on each side of this argument are (1) the culpability of humanity and (2) the character and nature of God. Christians of all stripes intend to glorify God by marveling at His goodness, justice, and moral perfection. Additionally, Christians seek to ensure that humanity alone is to blame for human sin and rebellion. Since the glory of God and the accountability of man is at stake, it is worth the investment of our time and effort to investigate thoroughly.
Part One: Past and Present Answers
One theologian said, “Man insists that his will is free, when in fact he is a slave to sin and the Devil.” Another denies “that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will.” The contrast could not be starker. One view claims an utter slavery and bondage of the will, and another view claims that there is no ‘incapacitation’ of the will. These contemporary theologians are not the only ones to have drawn such distinct lines, but they do present us with at least two clear answers to the question at hand: After the fall, is the human will free or fettered? One says, “Fettered!” and the other says, “Free!” Let us consider the arguments.
Human Freedom and Culpability
Human ability and freedom are directly tied to human obligation to submit to God’s authority. If God created man only to fail and then punished him for his failure, then it seems that some people will begin to question God’s character. And yet, we do find that both Scripture and experience present fallen man as having an inclination towards evil and sin. Therefore, it also appears unreasonable to claim that man’s will is unaffected by the original fall into sin. Furthermore, God’s sovereignty over whatsoever comes to pass would also seem to limit the freedom of man to act independent of God’s authority. Herein lies the apparent conflict between God’s freedom and man’s, which has a direct impact on perceived human responsibility.
A Christian Pentecostal theologian stated, “God, in providing for truly free moral decisions in the angels and human beings he created, had to allow for the possibility of failure in some of His creatures. Without that possibility there would not be genuine freedom…” This captures the thrust of one side of this argument. Without the possibility of “failure” (i.e. disobedience to God’s commands), Menzies argued that “genuine freedom” simply would not exist. He seems to contend that if man is to be culpable for his response to God, then it is necessary that he be capable of responding either rightly or wrongly with equal impetus.
Another contemporary theologian, as well as a Baptist seminary professor and Baptist church pastor, argues in a similar direction. Flowers said,
“[If the] desires of the [human] agent are equally part of the environment that God causally determines, then the line between environment and agent becomes blurred if not completely lost. The human agent no longer can be seen as owning his own choices, for the desires determining those choices are in no significant sense independent of God’s decree.”
The argument here is similar to the one above, but this one challenges something more. Flowers evokes the philosophical category of “causal determination” to describe the sovereignty of God over human freedom. In Flowers’ view, God’s ultimate governance of human desire would obliterate any responsibility on man’s part for such desires. Since, as Flowers claims, the choices of man would not be significantly independent from God’s “decree” (i.e. God’s sovereign purpose), then man could not be held responsible for those choices. If this reasoning is without substantial error, then this would indeed necessitate a freedom of man’s will that is uninfluenced by God’s antecedent foreordination – or anything else for that matter.
Jonathan Edwards is often regarded as the most brilliant American mind to date, and his own observations may help us with clarity on this aspect of the matter. Edwards described such libertarian freedom (as Flowers demanded above) when he said,
“[Liberty] consists in a self-determining power in the will, or a certain sovereignty the will has over itself, and its own acts, whereby it determines its own volitions; so as not to be dependent in its determinations on any cause without itself, nor determined by anything prior to its own acts.”
Edwards went on to utterly reject and refute this kind of freedom, both philosophically and Scripturally. However, Edwards is not the only one to see libertarian freedom as problematic, and I shall address this matter in part two of this essay.
Michael Horton, representing a contrary position to Menzies and Flowers, appears to understand the desire to demonstrate a certain ability in man that justifies his culpability while also acknowledging an inability that restrains man in bondage. He wrote,
“[Human] beings have a natural ability to fulfill God’s commands, but lack the moral ability to love God and neighbor so as to fulfill those commands. Human beings have all of the requisite faculties and abilities with which God endowed them in creation… The problem is that the human will is in moral bondage to sin.”
Phillips adds to this kind of argument by saying,
“It’s not that our choices aren’t real – they are. But because of our total depravity, we lack the power to will after God… we are no more able to will after God than a blind man can see, a deaf man can hear, or a mute man can speak.”
However, the brokenness of man’s will is a brokenness of desire and not of function. While impotence is well exemplified in the analogies Phillips provides, they may confuse the reader if they are pressed further. While a blind man may want to see without the ability, the corrupt sinner does not want godliness even though it may be genuinely offered to him.
We may conclude this section on the freedom and responsibility of man with a summary from Wayne Grudem. In his standard-setting systematic theology, he wrote,
“Certainly, those who are outside of Christ do still make voluntary choices – that is, they decide what they want to do, then they do it. In this sense there is still a kind of ‘freedom’ in the choices that people make. Yet because of their inability to do good and to escape from their fundamental rebellion against God and their fundamental preference for sin, unbelievers do not have freedom in the most important sense of freedom – that is, the freedom to do right, and to do what is pleasing to God.”
Therefore, we may understand that fallen humans do have freedom of the will in the sense that they “still make voluntary choices,” based upon their desires. Thus, fallen humans are responsible for their choices. We may also understand that fallen humans are incapable of choosing to please God or obey His commands, not because God removes their functional ability, but because they do not want to be obedient. Thus, fallen humans are not free, as Grudem said, “in the most important sense of freedom.”
Divine Command and Human Ability
In my estimation, the quintessential arguers in this debate are two figures from the 16th century: Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch Humanist and Roman Catholic priest, and Martin Luther, the German monk who became a Magisterial Reformer. Both of these men were titanic intellects and they both contributed a tremendous amount to the advance of biblical Christianity, but they each opposed each other on the battle front that resulted in the Protestant Reformation.
Erasmus argued against Luther’s view in a diatribe concerning the free will of man. Erasmus said, “[It] is not at all true that those who trust in their own works are driven by the spirit of Satan and delivered to damnation.” In his view, Erasmus would not allow humanity to be assigned to any kind of slavery to Satan, even in a fallen condition. For Erasmus, his view was required as a matter of propriety on God’s part. If man’s will be in bondage to Satan, Erasmus reasoned, then any command of God to make a choice toward freedom would be a ‘ridiculous’ one. Erasmus claimed, “It would be ridiculous to command one to make a choice, if he were incapable of turning in either direction. That’s like saying to someone who stands at a crossroads, ‘choose either one,’ when only one is passable.”
The argument here is noteworthy. What purpose could a command have if it could not possibly be obeyed? Luther replied to Erasmus on exactly this point. In his work, entitled Bondage of the Will, Luther reasoned that the command to do what could not be done may actually be understood as a gracious command if, as a result, one recognizes his inability and admits his helpless estate. Luther said,
“Would it, I pray, be ridiculous, if a man, having both his arms bound, and proudly contending or ignorantly presuming that he could do anything right or left, should be commanded to stretch forth his hand right and left, not that his captivity might be derided, but that he might be convinced of his false presumption of liberty and power, and might be brought to know his ignorance of his captivity and misery?”
In Luther’s rebuttal we may understand at least one sense in which an impossible command might be useful. A bound man who arrogantly refuses to acknowledge his bondage may be served by such a command that forces him to behold his helpless and foolish estate. Therefore, God’s commands to sinners may not necessarily prove any ability on their part. God may command, “Be holy” (Lev. 11:44) or “Repent and believe” (Mark 1:15), but this in no way provides evidence that the sinful hearer has the ability to obey.
Part Two: A Biblical and Theological Answer
In part one of this essay, I have introduced the reader to opposing answers to our original question and the rational behind them. In the remaining section, I shall attempt to present and defend my own answer. After the fall, is the human will free or fettered? I believe the will of fallen and unregenerate humanity has been radically corrupted by sin, it is in bondage to sin, and it is thereby morally unable to choose genuine good. In short, the human will is fettered indeed.
In any discussion, it is beneficial and profitable to ask the question, “What does the Bible say about this?” The Bible does not address every subject alike, but it does speak quite extensively on the matter of human nature and will. Let us briefly look at two separate passages to see what the Word of God says regarding human will, volition, or desire among post-fall creation.
First, a single verse from the Old Testament. Immediately after God judged the world by way of a deluge, He promised to never bring a world-wide flood upon the earth again. Moses wrote, “[The] LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth…’” (Gen. 8:21). This verse is comforting, since we see much of God’s grace in it, but we will focus here on the divine assessment of human intentionality.
The NET Bible translates the phrase “intention of man’s heart” as “inclination of their minds.” Other translations, predictably, have something similar, but the idea presented is that of purpose, delight, and desire. This verse is specifically noting the condition of the post-fall human will, and the diagnosis is proclaimed by very mouth of God. What does God say about the will, purpose, delight, or desire of man’s heart? He says, it is “evil from his youth.” The will of man, God says, is broken, corrupt, and wicked.
Additionally, the diagnosis does not allow for such corruption to be blamed upon environment. Man’s will is “evil from his youth.” This is not to say that the will of man becomes evil at some point during his youth, rather this is a sweeping condemnation of the human will, which is corrupt from his infantile origins. In this same vein, the Psalmist proclaims, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). Therefore, based on the expert testimony of God’s Word, we may understand that, after the fall of sin, man’s will is innately and radically corrupted by sin.
Second, let us turn to a concentrated passage from the New Testament. Writing to first-century Christians, the Apostle Paul drew attention to the grace, love, and mercy of God by placing the backdrop of human bondage and sinful corruption behind these things. Setting a truly dark canvas upon his easel, Paul said,
“you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:1–3).
In this miserable display, we may see some specific lines of distinction being made. Let us consider the particular ways in which the Apostle Paul has described the post-fall and unregenerate human condition. In verse one, he portrays human existence as “death.” In the editorial note on Ephesians 2:1, the NIV Zondervan Study Bible says, “Before God’s action, everybody who is born is spiritually dead and alienated from the God who is life and gives life.” Paul is not intending to say that people are literal corpses (for they are still “walking” and “living”), but that they are spiritually dead. R.C. Sproul, commenting on this same idea, said, “The moral ability lost in original sin is therefore not the ability to be outwardly ‘moral,’ but the ability to incline oneself to the things of God. In this spiritual dimension we are morally dead” (emphasis added).
In the two verses that follow Ephesians 2:1, Paul seems to elaborate on what it means, in his evaluation, to be spiritually dead. There are at least two ways in which he draws the form and substance of spiritual death: (1) following a worldly course and a powerful prince; and (2) living in fleshly passions and carrying out fleshly desires. Let us consider each of these aspects of spiritual death and how such things should shape our understanding of human will.
Following a worldly course and a powerful prince. A “worldly course” and a “powerful prince” are both examples of language not uncommon to the Bible or the Apostle Paul. In fact, Paul uses similar language in Galatians and Colossians. To the Galatian Christians, Paul wrote of their having been “enslaved to the elementary principles of this world” (Gal. 4:3). To the saints in Colossae, he wrote of their “deliverance from the domain of darkness” (Col. 1:13). The imagery is clear: devilish dominion enslaves all those who are spiritually dead, and these walk according to the dark course or path of their evil prince. This imagery may be unenjoyable to our eyes, but it is not difficult to observe or recognize. The picture is one of fettered bondage.
Living in fleshly passions and carrying out desires. These “passions” and “desires” are also frequently found in the biblical text. Paul says that Christians are to renounce “worldly passions” (Titus 2:12), and Peter says Christians are to resist conformity to the “passions” that accompany a “former ignorance” that characterizes unregenerate humanity (1 Peter 1:14). Jesus made a scathing remark against fallen humanity, summarizing all of this, when He said, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (John 8:44). In each case, “passions” and “desires” refer to lustful cravings and preferences of the will. When such cravings and preferences are qualified by the term “fleshly,” it always conveys the idea of sinful passions and desires. Therefore, according to Scripture, fallen man is not in bondage unwillingly, but he gladly wears his chains and even pursues heavier and lengthier ones.
After Genesis 3, we see a consistent picture of fettered human will. Furthermore, no passage of Scripture can overturn the clear presentation of these cited above without serious contradiction. Thus, we must acknowledge that the Bible affirms a bondage of the human will.
Theological Argumentation & Objections Answered
Theology, in a broad sense, is the study of God and His truth. The Bible is God’s special revelation, and in it we learn much about the character and nature of God, the nature of man, the purpose of creation, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, the Bible does not come to us as a systematized book of propositional statements. Of course, the Bible makes many assertions, and one may observe a very thoughtful and beautiful arrangement of its content, but the Bible does not read like a systematic theology textbook. Therefore, it is beneficial and productive to think through theological concepts and the various biblical information that informs those concepts before landing solidly on any important question.
As I stated above, I believe the will of fallen and unregenerate humanity has been radically corrupted by sin, it is in bondage to sin, and it is thereby morally unable to choose genuine good. This is a theological statement, an affirmation that is either true or false. The affirmation may benefit from further qualification and/or more precision in order to prove true after criticism; but if it is false, then it should be rejected outright. One way to criticize a theological affirmation is to ask questions that the statement itself raises by necessity. For example: If fallen humanity is in bondage to sin, can humans do anything good? If fallen humanity is radically corrupted by sin, then why do some non-Christians appear to be very good people? If God creates humans after the fall in such bondage and corruption, how can He blame them for acting on their sinful desires? What about free will? These questions, and others, will urge the theologian to clarify and defend the affirmation.
The position I have articulated above, regarding the nature of fallen human will, is not new with or to me (others have held the position before me, and I have also held it for some time now). People have objected to this position throughout Church history, and I have personally heard and read many contemporary objections myself. Below, I will attempt to briefly address some of the more common protests.
An objection to my stated view of fallen human will is raised in relationship to general goodness. One might say, “I cannot believe that all fallen human’s have an enslaved and evil will because I know many non-Christians who are very good people.” Of course, this complaint is in dire need of precisely defining theology-packed phrases and terms.
Evil people can do good things! I think even Adolf Hitler took good care of his dogs and paid his bills on time. When I speak of the human will as “enslaved to sin” I mean to say that a sinful disposition is what motivates all that the human does. Sinful and unregenerate man may do good things, but he does them from a heart that is in direct rebellion against God, and therefore those things that would be good otherwise are self-promoting and self-glorifying; thus, they are cosmic treason and an assault on the King of glory. The deeds of a sinner may sometimes seem virtuous, but his heart is a cesspool of evil, and the outside is merely a veneer.
Another objection to my stated view of fallen human will is connected to human responsibility. One might say, “If God gives humans the desires they act upon, then how can God blame a human for acting badly?” This complaint, in my view, comes from a misunderstanding of human freedom.
As I briefly mentioned earlier in this essay, professor Flowers and others reject any notion of God’s sovereignty over human will as a matter of philosophical a priori. According to some, as this objection exemplifies, God’s sovereignty over human freedom is incompatible with true human freedom. Furthermore, those who hold the Incompatibilist view believe that human culpability is lost along with human freedom if God is truly sovereign over it.
The kind of human freedom demanded by incompatibilists is called Libertarian Freedom, which is choosing against all influences and causes in order that there be no determining reason for any particular choice. However, such freedom is simply foreign to the Bible. Neither God nor anything in all creation is described as having this sort of freedom. Rather, all volitional creatures act according to the nature of their desire or will, which necessitates determining reason and/or causes for what is chosen. Even a cursory read through the Bible will present one with a view to both God’s sovereignty and man’s culpability (Gen. 50:20; Isaiah 10:5-7; Acts 4:27-28). We do not have to explain how the two are compatible, but we dare not demand that the biblical text conform to our philosophical notions of human freedom simply because God’s claims are outside of our full comprehension.
A final objection I will address here is the most emotional and most common I hear. One will say, “I just cannot believe that God would condemn someone for not believing the Gospel if He never even gave them the chance to believe it!” This protest is often the most emotionally charged of all. These words often spring from the mouth of one who has themselves or a loved one in mind. In response, I would like to offer one clarifying observation, one rebuttal, and one encouragement.
First, a clarifying observation. We may not like the thought, but if we believe in an exclusive Savior, then we must acknowledge that God does indeed send some people to hell who have never had the chance to believe the Gospel. There are people in the world today who have been born in a land or in a community that has no access to the Gospel, and they will die before anyone has told them the good news about Jesus. As tragic as this is, the reality is that God is just and right for punishing their disobedience, and God is not obligated to give anyone grace.
Second, a rebuttal. The Bible does not say that God condemns good men for not being better, but that God condemns evil men for being evil. Moreover, the whole lot of humanity is utterly opposed to God, and hostile towards Him. Therefore, God never has to add disbelief to the human will or hinder anyone’s ability to become receptive. Phillips said it well when he said,
“Men’s bondage in sin results not from the lack of opportunity to do good and love God, but from the bondage of his heart that causes him to love evil and hate God… despite the glorious opportunity afforded to man in the gospel of Jesus Christ, such is our total depravity that we are not able in and of ourselves to turn to God.”
Third and finally, an encouragement. Even though sinful and unregenerate man is truly corrupt and utterly bound in his love for sin, the God of grace is able to drag him out of his miry pit and give him new love and new desires. Whether we like thinking of our inherited depravity or not, we may rejoice with eternal gratitude that God does grant a new will, new desires, and new life to those whom He loves. The Scripture says:
“For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:3–7).
In conclusion, I believe the will of fallen and unregenerate humanity has been radically corrupted by sin, it is in bondage to sin, and it is thereby morally unable to choose genuine good. And I believe that to deny this is to deny the Scriptures, to deny the overwhelming testimony of human history, and to deny God His due glory for saving sinners as wretched as these. I praise God for His saving grace and for His mercy upon sinners so corrupt that they even attempt to deny the extent of their own sinful wickedness.
Carson, D. A., ed. NIV Zondervan Study Bible: New International Version.
Edwards, Jonathan. Freedom of the Will. Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1996.
Erasmus, Desiderius, and Martin Luther. Discourse on Free Will. Edited by Ernst F. Winter. London: Continuum, 2005.
Flowers, Leighton. “Beliefs.” Soteriology101. Accessed May 1, 2016. http://soteriology101.com/.
Flowers, Leighton. “Philosophical Ponderings about Calvinism, Compatibilism and Free Will.” Forever Learning… October 12, 2012. Accessed May 1, 2016. http://leightonflowers.blogspot.com/2012/10/philosophical-ponderings-about.html.
Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.
Horton, Michael Scott. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.
Luther, Martin. The Bondage of the Will. Lafayette, IN: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 2001.
Menzies, William W., and Stanley M. Horton. Bible Doctrines: A Pentecostal Perspective. Springfield, MO: Logion Press, 1993.
Phillips, Richard D. What’s so Great about the Doctrines of Grace? Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Pub., 2008.
Sproul, R. C. What Is Reformed Theology?: Understanding the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005.
Flowers, “Philosophical Ponderings”