Of Free Will
Second London Confession: Chapter IX
The Second London Confession [2LC] affirms free will plainly. “God hath indued the Will of Man, with that natural liberty, and power of acting upon choice; that it is neither forced, not by any necessity of nature determined to do good or evil.” This view is affirmed by the First London Confession (ch. IV), Abstract of Principles (art. IV), Philadelphia Confession (ch. IX), and New Hampshire Confession (ch. IV and IX). What, however, is the nature of the free operation of the human will, in the fallen state? Is it libertarian, operating just as easily in accord with or contrary to the mind’s disposition or inclination? Is it compromised, likely to follow the moral inclination but with some lingering powers of contrary choice? Is it wounded in man’s fall, but still sufficiently whole to choose Christ savingly? Or is there more to the story?
2LC 9.1: Freedom is genuine.
Free will, at its essence, is the mind choosing. The Baptist pastor and theologian, Nehemiah Coxe (probably coeditor of 2LC) wrote in 1677, “Liberty consists in a rational spontaneity: he acts freely…under no coercion…[and] doth what the last and practical judgment of his own understanding dictates to him.”1 In 1754, Edwards agrees: “The faculty of the Will, is that power, or principle of mind, by which it is capable of choosing: an act of the Will is the same as an act of choosing or choice;” further in his discussion, Edwards uses language remarkably like that of Coxe, “in some sense, the Will always follows the last dictate of the understanding.”2 Even so, Samuel Jones of the Philadelphia Baptist Association wrote, “Liberty consists in freedom to follow the desire.”3 In other words, human choices, like God’s, are both free and determined. The agent making the choice, exercising the will, is perfectly free in so doing while the choice itself is caused, determined, by the comparative strength of desires, propensities, inclinations that inform the understanding in any given case. We confess, therefore, that every choice is determined and at the same time compatible with the free agency of the chooser.
Scripture births this conviction: Jesus was “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8), and thus “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). But His death came by men’s hands, of their choosing. As Jesus descended the Mount of Transfiguration, His disciples asked about Elijah. Jesus referred to the recent execution of John the Baptist in His answer: “But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands” (Matthew 17:12b). Jesus placed the executioners of John the Baptist and His eventual killers in the same framework with his use of pronouns, observing that they did “whatever they pleased.” They were not forced or somehow secretly predisposed contrary to the nature of the will to kill Jesus; rather, as this paragraph states, they employed their “natural liberty, and power of acting upon choice.” As in every choice of all persons, they chose “according to inclination,”4 that is, “whatever they pleased.”
Scripture also gives its boundaries: the creature’s liberty, subject to the Creator’s providence, “is not coerced”5 toward good or evil. The will certainly must be influenced with good and sound reasons; otherwise, in Joshua 30, why does God set before Israel life and death, reminding them of the promises of His covenant (v. 19b), and His providences toward them (v. 20)? Such influences are necessary and the groundwork for eventual choices; they fall short, however, of moving the will if the proposition finds no resonance with the heart. Indeed, the very nature of temptation is that men do what they want, given the opportunities before them (James 1:14). J. P. Boyce summarized the moral reality, “The right would only be chosen so long as the motive to do so should be the prevailing one.”6 Susceptibility to influence, the giving of arguments and reasons for such-and-such an action, is absolutely consistent with the nature of volition, but contradicts libertarian conceptions. Freedom is real, but is always expressed in terms of the way external influences and proposed motives fit with the predispositions of soul. If, however, true freedom is the power of contrary choice, that is, contrary to prevailing motives and dispositions, then it makes no sense the incite the will with reasons for action, for the choice will be valid only if made contrary to a determining reason.
2LC 9.2: Freedom in the Garden (instability)
In the beginning, man existed in a state of innocence before God. He possessed freedom to live unto God, and moral ability to please God. Ecclesiastes 7:29a bears witness: “God made man upright” (Heb. yashar, “straight”), an assessment of Adam’s standing and soul. He was neither influenced by indwelling sin, nor enslaved to its siren call. Boston writes, “His will was in all things agreeable with the will of God (Ephesians 4:24). There was no corruption in his will, no inclination to evil; for that is sin, properly and truly…an inclination to evil is really a fountain of sin, and therefore inconsistent with that rectitude and uprightness which the text expressly says he was endued with at his creation. The will of man was then directed and naturally inclined to God and goodness, though mutable.”7
Adam not only obeyed God, he delighted in it. Part of the New Covenant’s glory is the law of God is written on the hearts of God’s people (Jeremiah 31:33; Hebrews 10:16). Before the Fall, Adam lived in an essentially pre-glorified state. He knew no inclination or temptation to sin, but to righteousness, and the joys of obeying and communing with God: “his affections were orderly, pure, and holy.”8 Boyce describes Adam’s pre-Fall perfection as “not merely in an innocent sinlessless, which left him without taint or tendency to sin, but in original righteousness, which comprised a love of holiness and natural choice of good rather than of evil.”9
In that context, God gave Adam the covenant of works, with this condition: “in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16f). The covenant of works and Edenic freedom of the will go hand-in-hand; each illumines the other. Hence the Philadelphia Baptist Association asserts, that there is no difficulty perceiving the free agency of man in the “state of innocence” with the exception of the immutable operation of the divine decree. The decree, however, does not interfere with free agency any more in this situation than it does in any of God’s decrees, most potently the crucifixion of Christ. Though God’s “determinate counsel” delivered up Christ to His Jewish enemies, they “acted freely according to the natural course of their wicked inclinations.”10
Adam and Eve willingly transgressed God’s commandment in remarkably similar fashion to how Paul experienced his own vulnerability to temptation in Romans 7: the commandment became to them the means by which death came, in that its prohibition (which was “holy, righteous, and good” in itself, Romans 7:12) was seized by the tempter, not their inward corruption, to move them to an action that Satan made to appear desirable by subtle argument. As Romans 7:8 says, “…sin seiz[ed] an opportunity through the commandment;” but in this case Satan seized an opportunity by the commandment. Dagg, defending the covenantal nature of Gen 2.16f, denominates the covenant of works “a law, with a penalty affixed.”11 In an important sense, then, we find here the first law, to lead us to the first gospel (Genesis 3:15).
So man was created with both ability and desire to glorify and obey God rightly, “but they have sought out many schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29b). “Our first parents, being left to the freedom of their own will, fell from the estate wherein they were created by sinning against God.”12 They chose to “transgress the covenant” (Hosea 6:7). Ames locates “the principal cause” of this choice as “man himself, in his abuse of free will.”13 Flavel employs identical nomenclature, finding Ecclesiastes 7:29 a demonstration that God did “not…inclin[e] him”14 to its abuse. Rather, as Boyce explains, “the plain teaching of Scripture is that man was not created in perfect equilibrium, but with a holy nature, the whole tendency of which was naturally towards the good and the holy. In thus fitting him for his trial, God is seen, by special endowment, to have given him most graciously all the powers possible to fit him for a wise choice in any instance in which he should be left to act according to his good pleasure.”15
Note here an important theme arising from Ecclesiastes 7:29: Adam’s temptation and sin were subject to God’s providence. God could have prevented Satan from entering Eden, or approaching Eve; He could have intervened, or prompted Adam to silence the serpent. But in His wisdom (and in a biblical-theological showcase of Christ’s federal faithfulness, Matthew 4/Romans 5), God permitted Adam’s choice. Ames remarks: “That righteousness and grace was not taken from him before he sinned, although strengthening and confirming grace by which the act of sinning might have been hindered and the act of obedience effected was not given him – and that by the certain, wise, and just counsel of God. God therefore was in no way the cause of his fall; neither did he lay upon man the necessity of sinning. Man of his own accord freely fell from God.”16
Mutability and impermanence thus framed Edenic freedom; and “the fall brought mankind into an estate of sin and misery.”17 Human mutability exposes both God’s eternality and man’s creatureliness – as Waldron sums up, “free will is not utter unpredictability”18 —and highlights the sinner’s need of God acting to save and sustain where man is powerless. “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men.” (Romans 5:12). Eden’s freedom brought us all into sin’s bondage and ruin.19
2LC 9.3: Freedom in our guilt (inability)
By the Fall, men have “wholly lost all ability of Will, to any spiritual good accompanying salvation.” Man now exists in a lapsed state, defined by spiritual inability. We might reckon the will now as spiritually disabled. We are not only weak (Romans 5:6) as the direct consequence of our sins (v. 8), but rendered incapable of doing that which pleases God: man now “cannot originate the love of God in his heart.”20
Paul expounds Romans 5, drawing a marked contrast between the regenerate and unregenerate man in Romans 8. A lost man’s mind is “set…on the things of the flesh” (v. 5)—fundamentally disordering God’s design for people – which “is death” (v. 6). His mind proves his fundamental disposition is disobedient, “hostile to God” (v. 8). Hence positing the will’s freedom as merely weakened by the Fall, but still viable and capable of choosing what is good, distorts Scripture’s witness (cf. John 6:29). Depraved affections constitute the internal motivations of fallen unredeemed man and thus determine his choices.
In other words, a lost man does what lost men love. He “walks according to the flesh” (v. 4) as his life’s pattern. He chooses “death,” not “life and peace” (v.6). He pursues this course because he loves his sin, and he cannot do or be otherwise. Paul dramatically concludes the dead sinner’s portrait, summarizing his utter inability to love, serve, obey, believe, or choose God: “the mind that is set on the flesh…does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (v. 7). Edwards explains well, “sinful men are full of sin; principles and acts of sin…They are totally corrupt, in every part, in all their faculties; in all the principles of their nature, their understandings, and wills; and in all their dispositions and affections.”21 As one’s words reveal one’s heart (Matthew 12:34), so one’s life reveals one’s master.
Such a state of spiritual disinterest embodies 2LC’s assertion that men are “altogether averse from that good” (9.3), namely, salvation and its fruits. It pleases God to believe on Christ unto salvation, but “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (v. 8)—that is, they can neither come to Christ for salvation, nor bear spiritual fruit of any eternal value. Behold the nature of spiritual deadness (Ephesians 2:1–3): the sinner is a walking corpse who follows his master (v. 2), doing his bidding (v. 3).
Fallen man possesses an incapacitated, incarcerated freedom, and inability is the other side of the coin. Inability means being “unable to will anything spiritually good.”22 Boettner illustrates: “As the bird with a broken wing is ‘free’ to fly but not able, so the natural man is free to come to God, but not able. How can he repent of his sin when he loves it? This is the inability of the will under which man labors…. He cannot come because he will not.”23
Even the historic Sandy Creek stream of Baptist thought affirms as much. Referencing Adam’s fall, their Principles first affirms classical federal imputation of Adamic sin “to his posterity,” then declares “that man, of his own free will and ability, is impotent to regain the state in which he was primarily [first] placed.”24 As Waldron writes, “Human freedom is not ultimate”25 —it is subject to God’s sovereignty.
So, just because a man can make good choices, doesn’t mean he can make spiritually good choices. In John 8.34, Jesus emphasizes that “everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” Most unregenerate men do not physically commit murder, rob banks, pursue adulterous relationships, or molest children, and each choice to abstain from these practices is surely morally good. But the heart of the issue is that these choices do not spring from love to God’s glory, desire to please him, or faith in Jesus Christ, and “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23b). They are good choices, which ought to be appraised as moral and admirable – but they are not spiritually good, for they do not come from a heart changed by grace, relying upon the Holy Spirit, and seeking to glorify and please God (1 Corinthians 10:31; 2 Corinthians 5:9)—a helpful distinction between civil (i.e., moral) vs. spiritual righteousness.26
“No one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12), for “no one seeks for God” (Romans 3:11). To be spiritually-minded—that is, to “set the mind on the Spirit” —is alone “life and peace” (Romans 8:6). One’s pattern of life unveils the heart’s standing before God, regardless what desire or duty may be felt. Thus one’s practice provides the best vantage point to observe spiritual inability’s reality. However upright and respectable one’s actions, whatever does not proceed from a vital union and living faith in Jesus Christ constitutes active rebellion against God (cf. Isaiah 64:6).
Herein shines God’s glory in saving sinners. Spiritual inability renders it necessary that God draw men to salvation in Christ. “A natural man…is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto” (2LC 9.3). Coxe writes, “Although man in his lapsed estate, hath such a principle of enmity to God reigning in him, that he cannot, until converted by effectual Grace, choose that which is right in the sight of God, yet doth he freely put forth a positive act of his will in refusing mercy rendered on Gospel terms.”27 Witness there the heart-context to which Jesus replies: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him (John 6.44)…no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (John 6.65). Both man’s drawing by God, and his coming to God, are from the hand of God: “for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15.5).
According to the Bible, then, only God’s sovereign grace brings wills enslaved to sin to saving faith in Jesus Christ. No assistance benefits one dead in his sins; no appeals to his freedom induce him to choose Christ; no exegetical arguments convince him; no prevenient grace short of effectuality assists him; no spiritual practices prepare him for what God alone can do (cf. Romans 6:18). Only God the Spirit graciously applying Christ’s blood to his soul will make him alive, and then he will come gladly and willingly: “Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power” (Psalm 110:3). Thus Spurgeon preached, “I have often heard of free will, but I have never seen it! I have met with will, and plenty of it; but it has either been led captive by sin, or held in the blessed bonds of Grace.”28
2LC 9.5: Freedom in glory (immutability)
Two key NT passages present five characteristics, illuminating human liberty in the glorified state.
Ephesians 4:13 lays out the first four characteristics. First, glorified saints will be marked by a common confession of faith:29 “until we all attain to the unity of the faith.” Here is no majority-vote, lowest-common-denominator settlement, but a distinct, specific agreement Scripture says we will reach, and identifies as “the unity” (Gk. ten enoteta). When seeing “in a mirror dimly” gives way to “face to face” (1 Cor 13:12a), we will rightly, willingly confess “one faith” (Ephesians 4:5).
Second, it will be a blood-stained, dearly-bought unity, based on clearly seeing Christ’s reign in heavenly session: “until we all attain to the unity…of the knowledge of the Son of God.” Paul describes this glorified, common knowledge of Christ, saying, “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12b). Christians will truly confess “one Lord” (Ephesians 4:5), willingly proclaiming “that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:11), “because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3.2).
Third, when everyone knows Christ rightly (Heb 8.11), the glorified saints will practice careful obedience to him: “until we all attain…to mature manhood.” The true doctrine of God, grasped experientially in Christ’s presence, will issue in the perfection of maturity—the culmination of orthodoxy leading to orthopraxy. Sin will no longer tempt or torment us. Obedience will be the Church Triumphant’s delight: “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple” (Revelation 7:15). Renewed wills, made immutably so, will love holiness because they love the thrice-holy God.
Fourth, the glorified state will bring complete spiritual maturity: “until we all attain…to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Happy, habitual holiness will mark the glorified saints. We will not only be made free to glorify God fully—we will want nothing else, forever.
Hebrews 12:23 gives the fifth characteristic: the covenant of grace is fulfilled, for “the spirits of the righteous [are] made perfect.” In coming to Jesus, we will behold the One who “loved us and gave himself up for us…to present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:2,27). “We shall be made truly free, then, when God fashions us, that is, forms and creates us anew, not as men—for he has done that already—but as good men, which his grace is now doing, that we may be a new creation in Christ Jesus…”30 The promises made in the kingdom of grace will be realized in the kingdom of glory, for “we shall be like him” (1 John 3.2).
Conclusion and Application
The 2LC concludes that “the Will of man is made perfectly, and immutably free to good alone, in the state of glory only.” Scripture makes plain that there is no libertarian free will; the notion is mythical, violating biblical testimony and confessional witness. Neither is there merely a weakened will; rather, sin has left it “so wounded, that it cannot, without [God’s] preventing and regenerating grace, put forth one spiritual and saving act, Ephesians 2:8–10.”31 Until the state of glory, free will is functionally what Luther termed “a lost liberty.”
We close with four brief applications.
First, give yourself to pursuing holiness. In Christ, believers can. “Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, as he is pure” (1 John 3:3). “Make it [y]our aim to be pleasing to him” (2 Corinthians 5:9).
Second, give yourself to “looking unto Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2). In Christ, believers can, because you have His earnest, the seal of His promise, dwelling in you (1 John 3:2f) in the person of God the Holy Spirit. Fix your eyes on Christ as the one whom your soul loves, as God your exceeding joy (Psalm 43:4).
Third, give yourself to resting in God’s purposes for your life. “What we will be has not yet appeared” (1 John 3:2). We do know, however, by God’s gracious revelation, that we will have our heart’s delight, for “We know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). The God who makes such promises for your eternity may be trusted with your every day.
Fourth, give yourself to speaking of the great love of God toward sinners in Jesus Christ. As 1 John 3:1–2 indicates, our eventual conformity to Christ arises from the exceeding great love that the Father has “given unto us,” a love that establishes the hope of the great promise, “when he appears.” (v. 2). Let us point men to our loving Saviour in the gospel message, and trust His blessing upon the means of grace, unto the good of souls and the glory of His name.
The freedom of the will, under the sovereignty of God, is still a mystery. We are compatibilists, after all (Jn 1.12f)! But the Philadelphia Baptist Association’s conclusion in their 1783 circular letter is very helpful: “three things are certain: 1st, The decrees and providence of God: 2nd, That he is neither the author nor approver of sin: yet 3rd, That man is a free agent. And if there be any difficulty in perceiving the agreement between the first and the last, yet not near so great as to reject all three, or either of them. It is not necessary that we should know everything. There are mysteries in nature as well as in providence and grace. We should beware of picking the lock…of which the key is not in our keeping.”33
1 Coxe, 64.2.
2 Jonathan Edwards, Works, 1:4, 6.
3 Samuel Jones, Minutes of The Philadelphia Baptist Association From A.D. 1707 to A.D. 1807 &c. (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1851), 196. Accessed at http://baptisthistoryhomepage.com/1783.cl.phila.html. Jones wrote an exposition of this article giving exposition of Chapter IX of the confession faith for the 1783 meeting of the association.
4 John Gerstner (and Don Kistler, ed.) A Primer on Free Will, in his Primitive Theology: The Collected Primers of John H. Gerstner (1914–1996). (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Ministries, 2003), 257. Cf. Augustine’s helpful distinction between freedom and ability: Pre-Fall: freedom with ability, posse non peccare (possible not to sin); Post-Fall: freedom to sin, not do good, non posse non peccare (not possible not to sin); Glorified: freedom to do good, not sin, non posse peccare (not possible to sin).
5 Williamson, G.I. The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1964), p. 85.
6 James Petigru Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology (Cape Coral: Founders Press, 2006), 231.
7 Thomas Boston, Human Nature in its Fourfold State (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 41.
8 Ibid., 42.
9 Boyce, Abstract, 230.
10 Jones, Minutes of The Philadelphia Baptist Association, 196, 197.
11 John L. Dagg, Manual of Theology: First Part: A Treatise on Christian Doctrine (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1981), 145.
12 Benjamin Keach, The Baptist Catechism, Q. 17. Accessed at http://www.reformedreader.org/ccc/keachcat.htm
13 William Ames, The Marrow of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 114.11.
14 Flavel, John. An Exposition of the Assembly’s Catechism, in The Works of John Flavel (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1968), Vol. XI, pp. 167–8 (Q. & A. 2–3).
15 Boyce, Abstract, 230.
16 William Ames, The Marrow of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 114.
17 Keach, The Baptist Catechism, Q. 17.
18 Samuel Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, fifth corrected edition. (Welwyn Garden City: EP Books, 2016), 166.
19 For more discussion on this issue see Founders Journal (Winter 2017), “The Sinning of a Pure Heart.”
20 Lorraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1932), 62.
21 Jonathan Edwards, “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1996), 1: 670 (2).
22 Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 167.
23 Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, 62.
24 Principles of Faith of the Sandy Creek Association, III. Accessed at http://www.reformedreader.org/ccc/sandycreekconfession.htm
25 Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 166.
26 Ibid., 170.
27 Nehemiah Coxe, Vindiciae Veritatis (London, 1677), 64.5.
28 Charles Haddon Spurgeon. “Our Change of Masters” (Sermon #1482, delivered July 6, 1879). Accessed at www.ccel.org/ccel/spurgeon/sermons25.xli.html. (Cf. Augustine, The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love, CIV).
29 A sound biblical argument for symbolics.
30 St. Augustine (Henry Paolucci, ed., with Adolph von Harnack). The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1995), XXXI (p. 38).
31 John Flavel, An Exposition of the Assembly’s Catechism, in The Works of John Flavel (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1968), Vol. XI, pp. 167–8 (Q. & A. 4).
32 Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans. J. I. Packer and O.R. Johnston (Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, 2012), 146.
33 Jones, Minutes of The Philadelphia Baptist Association, 196.